Categories
Sports

Bertrand ‘sets the standard’ for Irish football

“J.D. Bertrand is the guy that a lot of people will say motivates them to keep going,” senior defensive end Isaiah Foskey said. 

Head coach Marcus Freeman echoed a similar sentiment about the senior linebacker. 

“I would have to say J.D. Bertrand probably sets the standard.”

Bertrand joined the Irish as a four-star recruit ranked No. 318 in the nation and No. 18 in outside linebackers. 

Now, the Alpharetta, Georgia, native captains the Fighting Irish. On the field, he has led the team in tackles for the last two seasons. He racked up 102 in 2021 and this year, 65. Bertrand took the field four times in his freshman year with special teams. His role increased in his sophomore season with 11 appearances. Since then, Bertrand started every game in which he was eligible. 

Freeman says Bertrand’s success is due to his work ethic on and off the field. 

“He probably doesn’t want to hear me say this, but I don’t know that he has as much ability as everybody in that [linebacker] room… But he maximizes what he can be because of the way he prepares,” Freeman said. “The way he takes care of his body. The preparation. He’s a guy that’s on a timer in terms of when he goes to sleep, how many hours, what he puts in his body… He maximizes his God-given abilities and you’re seeing the rewards of it in the game.”

The work Bertrand puts in was obvious to Freeman since the head coach arrived in South Bend as defensive coordinator. Without fail, the linebacker showed up ready to go. 

“The thing I remember about J.D. is every day he would ask me, ‘Hey, coach, when can we watch film?’ When you’re a new coordinator it’s ‘Yeah, OK, you want to come and watch film, let’s watch a little bit of film.’ Every day — religiously — he would say ‘When can we watch film?’ And it could be six, seven in the morning or it could be seven or eight at night. My family wasn’t here at the time, so I was here all night. He would come in exactly when I would say come in. Almost to the point where sometimes you’d roll your eyes like, ‘Man, you’re back. Shoot, you remembered,’” Freeman said, laughing. 

Bertrand says his goal is always to get better and there’s always a part of his game to work on. To achieve that, he feeds off the energy around him. Additionally, he credits the coaching Notre Dame provides with making him and the rest of the linebacker room better. 

“There’s so much energy around the program with Coach Freeman and then talking about football in general the main thing is making sure we get better every day,” Bertrand said. “We have such resources in Coach Golden and James — how many people have James Laurinaitis in their linebacker room? Just being able to take every single piece of advice we can get from them and take that from learning to being able to actually apply and anticipate as a defense.” 

One of the best parts, Bertrand says, of having this kind of coaching is that he and the linebackers have a lot of control over how they respond in game-time situations, especially in terms of “being able to anticipate offenses based on offensive formations and being able to get our defense into different checks or adjustments.” 

In order to captain the defense in that regard, Bertrand relies on strong communication. 

“You can never be good enough at communication. Being able to get that communication from the secondary to the linebackers to the D-line because everything we’re doing is relating to each other and so being able to communicate is invaluable,” Bertrand said. 

Maintaining that connection and conversation has been easier this year Bertrand says, especially since the team grew closer across the board. A large portion of the Irish roster’s upperclassmen studied abroad together this summer. Bertrand specifically traveled to Milan. 

“[It] was an awesome experience,” he said. “I think that’s what sets Notre Dame apart. We’re so special as a football program because we allow our guys to get that cultural engagement. The biggest thing I took away from it was the bond I was able to grow with eight of my guys. We were able to grow that aspect of our relationship outside of football and get to know each other better. We can kind of see what drives each other, why we play the way we play and why we were who we are.”

Knowing his teammates better helps Bertrand to be a better leader and a better captain, he said. He combined that with everything Freeman saw in him to not only lead by example but to pick up the guys around him too. Foskey discussed what it’s like to be around Bertrand, adding that it’s motivation. 

“Even when he’s hurt, just from the beginning, he just kept working, doing the same stuff over and over again, trying to perfect his craft — and look at him now, a starter for Notre Dame for two years in a row. It’s just great to see,” Foskey said. “He always just wants you to keep working and working too.”

As a leader, Bertrand shares his own mentality with the team, emphasizing the importance of day-to-day growth and improvement. The reason he values it so much, he says, was a headspace Jerome Bettis clued him into. 

“I told our guys I got to spend some time with Jerome Bettis. When I talked to him, he was like ‘who are you competing with?’ His message to me wasn’t I’m competing with these guys. I mean obviously, we are in some regard. But I’m competing with myself and the J.D. Bertrand that plays at Michigan and the J.D. Bertrand that plays at Ohio State and Georgia and all these other schools,” Bertrand said. “As long as I come away every single day and say ‘I got better that day,’ whether on the field or on the mental side in the classroom, I just want to be able to say I got better each day and stack each stone on top of the other.”

When he needs to find motivation, especially in terms of leading the team, Bertrand relies on inspiration from his family. Most specifically, the linebacker looks to his brother. John Michael Bertrand was Notre Dame baseball’s ace pitcher in its 2022 College World Series run. Bertrand found his motivation by watching the team play in Tennessee.

“[Notre Dame baseball was] the biggest underdog you could be and Tennessee was supposed to be the greatest team college baseball has almost ever seen. But it’s not a matter of what everyone else says it’s about what you guys believe. Even when things go wrong you could see them continue to fight. So [I just] want to take that aspect of continuing to fight and apply it to our team,” Bertrand said. 

The Irish have continued to fight so far this season, as has Bertrand. Starting 0-2, the Irish are now 8-3. Bertrand, after sitting out in the first half against both North Carolina and BYU for targeting, came back against Stanford for his career-best 13 tackles. Since then, Bertrand hasn’t had less than five tackles. In their biggest game, the Irish ran away, beating Clemson 35-14. Bertrand had 12 tackles and two for a loss including a sack.  

Recentering like that, Bertrand says, comes from his focus, taking care of himself off the field (more than he had in previous years) and from consistent support from his family. This week, the Irish take on the Trojans in no smaller feat than the Clemson game. Bertrand will have his entire family in town supporting him. 

“It’s just one of those rivalries you look forward to, almost all of college football looks forward to. For me, it’s super cool because I have a lot of family out there in the LA area,” he said. “My mom grew up there so just the ability to bring my whole family together and have them celebrate Thanksgiving and then come support me at this game. So I’m just excited to be able to show my skills on the field.”

Contact Mannion McGinley at mmcginl3@nd.edu