Can Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand keep his torrid tackles pace?
JD Bertrand wasn’t satisfied with the way he played against Cincinnati.
The junior linebacker finished tied for a team-high with six tackles in the 24-13 loss last Saturday, but his mistakes nagged at him the next day. Less than 24 hours after the game, Bertrand dialed up former NFL safety Victor Green to review his performance.
Green, who has worked with Bertrand since his sophomore year at Roswell (Ga.) Blessed Trinity Catholic, said Bertrand asked him to watch and critique close to 45 plays from the Cincinnati game. The two went over each play to evaluate what he did wrong and what he did well.
“That’s the type of kid he is,” Green said. “You have most kids that don’t know what they did and continue to do it. Not JD. He’s going to continue to find a way to get better.
“You’re going to see him play a lot better this week, I promise you that.”
Bertrand’s worst moments may have come on Cincinnati’s final scoring drive to secure the victory. Running back Jerome Ford juked Bertrand on a 16-yard run. Tight end Leonard Taylor split a zone coverage past Bertrand for a 36-yard catch. Then quarterback Desmond Ridder beat Bertrand around the edge for a six-yard touchdown run.
It was a rough finish for Notre Dame’s leading tackler and one of its most consistent performers this season. Though Bertrand was only elevated to a starting role when fellow junior Marist Liufau went down with a season-ending ankle/leg injury in late August, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Bertrand has emerged as an irreplaceable member of the defense.
So much so that he rarely leaves the field for a defensive snap. According to Pro Football Focus, Bertrand was on the field for 354 snaps in the first five games for No. 14 Notre Dame (4-1). The only other players on Notre Dame’s defense to play more than 300 snaps this season all reside in the secondary: safety Kyle Hamilton (362) and cornerbacks Clarence Lewis (345) and Cam Hart (303).
While the Irish have rotated their mike and rover linebackers, Bertrand has been the workhorse at will linebacker. Starting mike linebacker Drew White has played just 220 snaps compared to Bertrand’s 354.
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Two weeks ago, head coach Brian Kelly expressed a need to get Bertrand off the field at times, perhaps with freshman Prince Kollie available to give him some breaks. Instead, Bertrand played all but two snaps against Wisconsin and Cincinnati.
Will any breathers come Saturday at Virginia Tech (3-1)? Or will the Irish need to wait beyond the bye week to find help for Bertrand?
“It's absolutely crucial that we get JD some strategic time off the field,” Kelly said Thursday. “We want to pick our spots. It's the same thing with Kyle Hamilton. We have to be really cognizant of the amount of plays.
“Time and place is important too, right? I don't want to be without these guys on key third-down situations, where we are on the field, red zone, things of that nature. But we have to take some of the reps off of them.”
Bertrand and Hamilton being mentioned in the same regard offered a bit of a full-circle moment for Ed Miller, owner of The Rack Athletic Performance Center in Atlanta. Miller has worked with Hamilton since eighth grade and later added Bertrand as a client through a referral by Hamilton’s family. Bertrand started working with Miller in early 2019 as he prepared to leave for Notre Dame.
“JD is one of the hardest working kids that I’ve ever worked with,” Miller said. “He’s like a coach’s dream. All he wants to do is get better and play. He’ll do whatever you ask of him.
“He does it harder than anyone that you’re working with, because he wants to improve and he wants to play. He wants to be the best that he can be. I’m not shocked at all that he’s having the success that he’s having this year.”
The success has been substantial. Bertrand’s 48 tackles are the most through five games at Notre Dame since linebacker Manti Te’o totaled 64 to start the 2010 season. By averaging 9.6 tackles per game, Bertrand is on pace for nearly 125 tackles in a 13-game season.
When Te’o finished the 2010 season with 133 tackles, it was the most for a Notre Dame player since linebacker Tony Furjanic’s 147 in 1985. Only linebacker Te’von Coney, with 123 tackles in 2018, has approached Te’o and his 133 tackles. Te’o also tallied 128 tackles in 2011.
Though Kelly is interested in lowering Bertrand’s workload, that might not lessen his tackle totals. If he’s fresher while he’s on the field, he might even be able to accelerate his tackle pace. If he doesn’t get those breaks, Miller is confident Bertrand will keep playing well.
“JD’s like a machine,” Miller said. “Some of us kind of joke around in the gym and call him a cyborg, because he just doesn’t get tired. That’s a testament to how hard he actually works.
“If you know his family, he’s been like that since he was born. All of the kids in the whole family, that’s how they work. They work to be the best at what they’re doing. He doesn’t come off the field a lot, but that’s what he’s built for.”
Before Bertrand’s breakout season on the football field, his older brother, John Michael, played the best baseball of his career for the Irish as a graduate transfer from Furman. In 15 pitching appearances earlier this year, John Michael recorded a 3.24 ERA over 92.2 innings with 68 strikeouts and an 8-2 record.
The younger Bertrand might be outshining his older brother for now. JD’s 6.2 solo tackles per game put him in a tie for eighth-best in the FBS entering this week. Not bad for a guy who was climbing the depth chart to solidify a backup role two months ago.
“He picks up on everything really fast,” Miller said of JD. “Like really, really fast. He’s smart. He’s very intelligent. … Watching him play this year, he’s just quick to the football. He’s very quick, very explosive and tackles well.”
JD Bertrand might not have measurables that scream elite. Rivals rated him as a three-star prospect and ranked him as the No. 27 inside linebacker in the 2019 recruiting class.
Even Green couldn’t point to a specific aspect of Bertrand’s physical skill set that separates him from other linebackers. But the difference, Green said, is all the time Bertrand spent pushing himself to be better.
“He prepares unlike any guy that’s out there right now,” Green said. “You don’t get a lot of guys that watch as much film as JD and are prepared as somebody who was a scout team/special teams player last year and gets thrust into the starting job and now you’re the leading tackler on the team.
“It says a lot about who he is and how he prepared and got ready for it.”
HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. VIRGINIA TECH
Who: No. 14 Notre Dame (4-1) vs. Virginia Tech (3-1)
Kickoff: Saturday at 7:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Lane Stadium; Blacksburg, Va.
TV: ACC Network
Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 1
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.