Never satisfied: Signee JD Bertrand's approach could take him to new heights at Notre Dame

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

Trevor Lawrence remembers No. 16 in white for Roswell (Ga.) Blessed Trinity Catholic.

How could he not? BTC eliminated Lawrence and Cartersville (Ga.) High via a 21-17 victory in Georgia’s Class 4A playoffs. It ended the high school career of Lawrence, who hasn’t lost a game since as Clemson’s star quarterback.

No. 16 in white, JD Bertrand, made a lasting impression. BTC’s middle linebacker — who signed to Notre Dame’s 2019 class in December after decommitting from Georgia — was a key cog in snapping Cartersville’s 41-game winning streak. So much so that Lawrence recalled Bertrand’s statline more than a year later.

“He was a good player. I think he had 16 tackles against us,” said Lawrence to reporters days before defeating the Irish 30-3 in the Dec. 29 College Football Playoff Semifinal. “They beat us on one of the last plays of the game my senior year in the second round, so that was tough. But he was a great player. He’s really physical, he can run and obviously he’s a big guy. I think he’s going to do well at Notre Dame.”

A performance consisting of 16 tackles, 1.5 sacks and a fumble recovery was nothing new for Bertrand. It certainly didn’t alarm his coaches. The four-year starter registered 12.5 sacks as a freshman.

Operating as a quarterback of sorts for BTC’s defense, the now 6-foot-1, 223-pounder led the Titans to back-to-back state titles. Bertrand’s insatiable hunger, tireless work ethic and off-the-field makeup normalized his consistent, elite play on the field.

John Thompson, BTC’s defensive coordinator, couldn’t recall a player like Bertrand. He coached college football for over three decades and even served as East Carolina’s head coach in 2007. Thompson once coached with Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, LSU’s Ed Orgeron, Steve Spurrier and more.

“I don’t think I’ve ever coached a player that is more driven and works at it completely, totally, like JD has,” Thompson said. “His body in training, taking care of his body with what he eats and drinks, being physical on the field and being that kind of guy.”

BTC’s coaches said Bertrand’s tunnel vision toward football almost made them uneasy. Thompson compared Bertrand’s demeanor to that of New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. Does he ever cut loose?

Bertrand texted Thompson the morning after BTC captured its first title, asking if he could offer a few areas for improvement. There was no time to waste for Bertrand, who was not satisfied with one season still ahead of him.

He treated meetings and film breakdown the same way. And it’s why Notre Dame’ss condition in place — one that could put him on an academic and not an athletic scholarship — did not offend Bertrand.

Semantics don’t matter. He’s focused on football.

“He would get down on the floor and during the meeting would stretch,” Thompson said. “He would roll himself out the whole time the meeting was going on. He wasn’t going to waste his time just sitting. He was going to do that also. It kind of blew my mind a little bit. Like, ‘Oh, come on. This guy isn’t real.’ But he is.”

An excellent leader

Once a championship rugby player in Ireland, Jim, JD’s father, had his influence. But it was Christine, JD’s mother, who told her three sons to join the Boy Scouts of America. Bertrand followed the path of his older brothers, joining the troop in fifth grade.

JD discovered boy scouts could translate to the field. Yoga, karate and swimming are among Bertrand’s other hobbies. To Bertrand, they each improve his game in different ways.

“He’s one of the most unusual kids I’ve ever coached in those regards,” said Tim McFarlin, BTC’s head coach. “A lot of guys, they put those kind of things on their resumes, and you wonder if it’s for real. But JD is remarkable. ... As a matter of fact, he’s so mature that it’s uncomfortable at times as a coach.”

Boy scouts taught Bertrand the essentials of camping, pitching tents, cooking, archery, first aid and more. How does that help him on the football field?

“The biggest thing is leadership,” Bertrand said. “The whole philosophy is just having the high schoolers run the show. The adults are just there for assistance. When you are older in the troop, you learn everything, you teach everyone else everything and you are the head person that’s running the show.

“I’ve definitely learned more about leadership, how to lead and how to treat different people. Some people need a stern talking to, while others just need encouragement and kind words.”

Bertrand became an eagle scout during the summer of 2017. BTC’s championship run in which Bertrand flashed his leadership skills followed. It was Thompson’s first season as the Titans’ defensive coordinator. As a tenured college coach, Thompson installed a unique, advanced system at BTC.

The Titans allowed fewer than nine points per game in the 2017 playoffs. They held Lawrence to 142 yards and a touchdown on 15-for-28 passing. Bertrand’s mastering of the system, and ability to teach it to his teammates, helped BTC hold opponents to fewer than 12 points per game in 2018.

“If a guy got hurt and somebody had to learn a new position, I could get JD to teach it better than I could,” Thompson said. “They would listen to him better. He’s an excellent leader.”

No breaking point

Fifty reps on leg press was all Bertrand needed to finish his last set. But he had already done 50 reps during the January workout. Bertrand wanted 60.

With a few more reps remaining before 60, Bertrand became lightheaded, left the room and vomited. All his trainer Victor Green could do was laugh.

“Whether that’s going to kill him, he’s going to get that number,” Green said. “The first time I ever trained him, he threw up three times. Three times. After that third time, I said, ‘You are done. That’s it.’ He would just keep coming back, and back, and back until he just didn’t have any more.”

Green began training Bertrand following his junior season. Bertrand’s NFL-like regimen comes from Green spending nine seasons as a New York Jets safety. The two train four times per week and break down practice and game film throughout the season.

“He’s watching me on every single play,” Bertrand said. “A lot of it is just watching my reads, working on my drops and cluing the quarterback while getting a feel for what the wide receivers are doing. ... I’m forever thankful for him, because he’s taken me under his wing and helped me in so many different aspects.”

Their progress speaks for itself. A right MCL sprain at the end of Bertrand’s senior season was his only injury while under Green’s counsel. Bertrand had been intermittently injured throughout his first three seasons.

Bertrand’s inability to stay on the field played a role in Rivals demoting him to a three-star rating and its No. 27 inside linebacker. 247Sports considers Bertrand as a four-star recruit, ranking him as its No. 18 outside linebacker and No. 261 overall player.

“That has always played in my mind, can he stay healthy? He’s been banged up, whether it’s his ankle, knee, foot or shoulder,” said Chad Simmons, Rivals’ southeast recruiting analyst.

Green knew this, and it’s why he advised Bertrand to take up yoga and karate once per week. It’s why Bertrand stretches during meetings, film sessions and class. Bertrand will continue to train with Green until he joins Notre Dame’s squad in June.

The Irish may not have room for Bertrand as an athletic scholarship player. Should the Irish reach the 85-man limit, they will place Bertrand on an academic scholarship. Neither route will require Bertrand to pay for school, he said.

That didn’t bother Bertrand, who knew about ND’s contingency plan when committing. Georgia going back on its word — which resulted in Bertrand’s Oct. 5 decommitment — offended BTC’s coaches more than him. Because to Bertrand, there’s no time to waste. Nothing can subdue his focus.

“JD’s flexibility is probably better than any high school kid you could find,” Green said. “I’ve got him stretching every day. JD is going to be more than prepared. It almost might be, ‘Man, this is easy,’ type of thing.”

2019 linebacker JD Bertrand (left) earned an offer from Notre Dame on Nov. 17, 2018.