For Notre Dame's JD Bertrand and modern defenders, 'Targeting happens'

Mike Berardino
ND Insider
Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand (27) and Notre Dame safety Xavier Watts (26) combine to tackle Stanford wide receiver Michael Wilson (4) during the Notre Dame vs. Stanford NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

SOUTH BEND — Pardon JD Bertrand if he’s starting to feel a bit ... well, targeted.

Notre Dame’s leading tackler the past two seasons had already sat out more than the equivalent of a full game after incurring second-half targeting penalties against California and North Carolina, so a sense of disbelief washed over the Irish captain and middle linebacker when it happened again late in last Saturday’s win over UNLV.

“When I saw the flag, I was like, ‘Oh, gosh, are you kidding me?’ “ Bertrand said.

A hard hit at the goal line on Rebels wide receiver Kyle Williams had put Bertrand’s playing style on trial yet again. After a replay review and some “pleading with the refs” by Irish coach Marcus Freeman, Bertrand’s penalty was overturned and he was able to avoid his third automatic ejection of the season.

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The junior spent a good portion of Tuesday’s media session explaining his position as the Irish prepared to meet 16th-ranked Syracuse on the road.  

“Obviously, targeting is a hard thing,” Bertrand said. “It’s never meant to be malicious. You’re just trying to finish the ball carrier and make sure they feel you. I mean, that’s just football.”

All three of the targeting flags against Bertrand have come downfield in pass coverage. The first one, against the Bears, was away from the play and wiped out a game-sealing interception by Clarence Lewis.

The next week, after sitting out the first half at UNC, Bertrand hit a Tar Heels receiver immediately after a 23-yard reception. Former NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, ABC's game analyst, termed that “an awful call” during the broadcast.

Notre Dame asked the Atlantic Coast Conference to appeal the penalty to the NCAA, but the appeal was denied and Bertrand had to sit out the first half of the Shamrock Series game against BYU in Las Vegas.

“Everything happens so fast; it’s a split-second thing,” Bertrand said. “All these football plays, when you slow things down and look at replay, it can look a lot more malicious than it can be. It might just be that you flip (around), you see the ball and the next thing you know you’re hitting him. Targeting happens.”

Avoiding the gray area

Irish defensive coordinator Al Golden, back at the college level after six seasons as an NFL assistant, agrees that targeting is being called more tightly this season.

His advice to Bertrand and his fellow Irish defenders: “Whatever you’ve got to do to stay in the strike zone, just stay out of the gray area. It’s not going to go your way.”

AJ Golden, a junior middle linebacker and quarterback at Cincinnati’s St. Xavier High School, has some of the same conversations with his dad.

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“My son plays football, too,” Golden said. “I want him to hit in the strike zone. I always tell the guys: Use their shoulder, have their eyes up, have their cleats in the ground. And that’s what we’re teaching (AJ).”

While targeting rules are in place to reduce head injuries and protect defenseless players, they add to the challenge for defenders already struggling to contain high-powered offenses in the modern era.

“Sometimes it’s a physical game,” Golden said. “Sometimes that happens. Some of those plays are bang-bang. Both guys are going for the ball.”

Al Washington, in his first season as Irish defensive line coach, wants his players to pursue quarterbacks and other ballcarriers with intensity and abandon. That charge has become more difficult when defenders also must be mindful of where and how they are hitting the opponent.

“You have to focus on the strike zone — that chest area right below the chin and really in the torso – and you have to be conscious,” Washington said. “You may have to be a little (lower) than you would back in the day, but it’s just one thing you have to be aware of. You’re playing hard, but you have to control it.”

Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau (8) and Notre Dame linebacker JD Bertrand (27) celebrate during the Notre Dame vs. University of Nevada NCAA football game Saturday, Oct. 22, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Leading with the crown of the helmet has been legislated out of the game, to the benefit of all involved, but it’s not always easy to be as precise as the rules require defenders to be.

“It’s never going to be perfect,” Washington said. “Sometimes it’s inevitable (that targeting will be called), but I think having the awareness is really important. The emphasis is on what you’re making contact with: shoulder pad through the sternum, as best you can.”

Ball carriers, of course, still have the right to engage tacklers by lowering their shoulders as they strain for extra yardage. That makes for a moving target and more personal foul penalties.

“It depends on the position of the ball carrier,” Washington said. “What you’re seeing is a lot of ‘err on the side (of caution),’ just to be safe, because you don’t want to miss. But I’m a defensive guy. I think it’s really tough sometimes, especially when the ball carrier is low on his target, and it moves. It really goes against the principles of being in leverage.”

For now, whether it’s Bertrand or anyone else trying to make tackles in college football, the best one can do is play hard and hope for the best.

“It’s not an exact science,” Washington said. “I think across the country that’s what you see. The variable is where the ball carrier leaves his demeanor a lot of times, and sometimes (defensive) guys just lose focus. That happens, too.”

'My biggest fear'

Watching Bertrand get ejected for targeting in back-to-back weeks made an impression on sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie.

“Yeah, it scares me,” said Kollie, Tennessee's Class 5A Mr. Football in 2020. “That was my biggest fear coming into college was targeting calls. I figured I’d get a lot of them. You just have to be … careful? You’ve got to play. You’ve got to play ball.”

To refine their habits and steer clear of further trouble, Bertrand and the other linebackers have been working after practice with shorter tackling dummies. At a height of perhaps 5 feet, these modified training tools offer Irish linebackers a chance to flip their hips and blindly lower their strike point.

“I’m just making sure that I hit them really low,” Bertand said. “For me, to be honest, it’s something that I’m practicing so I don’t have to think about it during games. If you start thinking about, ‘Where am I going go hit him?’ it’s just going to slow me down.”

Bertrand shrugged.

"It’s not even, I feel like, I’m putting my head down," he said. "I’ve had my head up in most all the situations, so it’s just making sure I shoot a little lower on the body."

If Bertrand, as technically sound of a linebacker as the Irish have, can run afoul of targeting rules, it can happen to anyone.

“His effort is through the roof on every play,” Kollie said. “Can’t teach it. Kudos to him for being insane. He’s a robot almost. He’s just different.”

Asked if there was any targeting-related adjustment that can be made without sacrificing the violence necessary to play football, Kollie shook his head.

“Personally, I don’t think so,” he said. “You just have to play football. You can’t worry about that call. We can probably try to teach it: ‘When you get to the point of contact, get your head out of it.’ But still we fly around to the ball. We’re not worried about targeting.”

Junior linebacker Jack Kiser, a Bertrand-level technician and the team’s second-leading tackler, has a similar viewpoint.

“You can’t let it alter how you play football,” Kiser said. “You can’t be scared of (making) a tackle because that’s what you’re thinking of. You just have to be very conscious of, ‘I can’t go so high here on a defenseless receiver. I can’t get in a compromised position. I need to keep my head up.’ “

That seems like a lot to consider in the moment.

“You’ve got to play football,” Kiser said. “They’re on scholarship, too, so you’ve got to do everything (you can). You’re trying to win. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of money going through college football.”

There’s also the notion of unintended consequences.

“The problem of it all," Kiser said, "is then you get guys going at knees and you get going too low. You certainly don’t want to be taking the other players out like that either. You’ve got to be good enough to know where that strike zone is.”  

Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.

Notre Dame (4-3) vs. No. 16 Syracuse (6-1) 

  • When: Saturday at noon EST 
  • Where: JMA Wireless Dome (49,057), Syracuse, N.Y. 
  • TV/Radio: ABC, WSBT Radio (960 AM), WNSN (101.5 FM) 
  • Line: Syracuse opens as a one-point favorite  
  • Series: Notre Dame leads 7-3 
  • Last meeting: Notre Dame won 45-21 in 2020 at Notre Dame Stadium