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Friday, June 21, 2024
The Observer

“Hard-hitting, physical, wreaking havoc”: Bertrand and Co. ready to lead the Irish defense

Ryan Vigilante | The Observer
Irish linebacker JD Bertrand lines up across from Trojan quarterback Caleb Williams during Notre Dame's 38-27 loss to USC on Saturday night. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

It might not seem like much is new for JD Bertrand in the fall of his fifth year at Notre Dame. The graduate student has started at middle linebacker for the past two seasons, has been a team captain and has played in the College Football Playoff. Bertrand even played a football game in Dublin, the site of the Irish’s season opener against Navy, as a high schooler in 2016.

The same could be said for Notre Dame’s entire linebacker unit. When the Irish released their depth chart for the Navy game earlier in the week, the linebacker rotation offered no surprises. Last year’s trio of starters – current graduate students Bertrand, Jack Kiser and Marist Liufau – will once again be piloting the Irish defense.

For a group that has proven their ability to play at a high level and has all the big-game experience you could ask for, questions lingered about how they could raise the bar in 2023, what they could do differently to continue elevating their own performance and that of the entire defense.

To Bertrand, who led the Irish with 82 tackles last season (8.5 TFL) and was named the team’s Defensive Player of the Year, that growth has been multifaceted over the nearly eight months since Notre Dame’s Gator Bowl victory last December. For starters, the unit has continued to build the same trust and chemistry on the field that they have off it.

“One of the coolest things is just having them as my best friends off the field,” Bertrand said about Kiser and Liufau during fall camp. “I think that really does come onto the field [when] we're trying to beat each other to checking the defense or we're trying to make sure that each other knows every single little detail and [can anticipate] the offense.”

That trust has also been built with the coaching staff, especially second year defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Al Golden. With a full season in South Bend now under his belt, Golden has felt more comfortable raising his expectations for the unit and Bertrand has eagerly taken on added responsibility.

“One of the biggest things is that he's able to put more load on us as linebackers because he knows that we’ll be a common voice for the defense,” Bertrand said about the difference in Golden’s coaching from last season. “So when a motion comes in or a check needs to be made, we can make that check really fast and calm everyone else.”

While the Irish’s starting linebacker core remains the same, the group features several talented young players. Now a two-time captain, Bertrand’s responsibilities extend to preparing his younger teammates for the big moments that they may step into at some point in the season.

“Having so many younger guys in our system, it’s been an opportunity to teach,” Bertrand said. “Whether it’s answering every single question they have or looking at the details and their technique, it’s been a really cool opportunity to almost test my knowledge by getting all these kinds of questions.”

In terms of on-field performance, Golden noted four areas that the Irish’s linebackers have prioritized this offseason.

“We need great ball disruption, we need to finish [with] effort and attitude on every single play,” Golden said. “We need to understand, identify and execute in situations and then we need to be better tacklers.”

Maybe the improvements that Bertrand and the linebackers have made won’t jump off the page as much as they will for some of the Irish’s less experienced position groups. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be present.

They could show up as the heightened effectiveness with which Bertrand communicates to his teammates. Or the standout play of the unit’s younger members that stems from his leadership. Or the Irish linebackers disrupting more passes, playing with more energy, reading and reacting quicker and tackling better while taking on an expanded role in the defense.

Those subtle developments could turn a good unit into a great one during a Notre Dame season that kicks off against Navy on Saturday. It will be a special game for Bertrand – he expects upwards of 20 friends and family members currently living in Ireland to be in attendance.

“My family’s excited, our family and friends in Ireland are excited,” Bertrand said. “The energy there is just going to be unreal.”

When asked about the identity of this Irish defense, Golden was hesitant to put a label on it. He preferred to defer to his players, who were more than happy to oblige.

“We’re going to be a defense that is hard-hitting, physical, wreaking havoc,” Kiser said. “But at the same time, [we’re] going to bring consistancy and execution that hasn’t been seen in a while.”

Notre Dame’s linebacker trio is back for an encore season and they’re not the same players they were last year. They’re ready to prove it.