Banged-up JD Bertrand finding rest when he can before Notre Dame faces Navy’s triple-option

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When JD Bertrand faces the triple-option on Saturday against Navy, he’ll have some previous experience against Kyle Hamilton’s former team to draw on.

Notre Dame’s two junior defensive linchpins were high school rivals in Georgia. Of course, Hamilton was not running the triple-option, but his respective offense provides Bertrand plenty of familiarity this week readying for the Midshipmen. The Will linebacker knows the most challenging part of preparing for Navy is the significant uptick in pace from any version of the triple-option he’s seen before. 

“I think the biggest thing is, we understand that we’re not going to be able to replicate the speed of which they’re able to run the triple,” Bertrand said.

Notre Dame’s scout team devotes extensive time to Navy preparations, which feature quarterback Chase Ketterer, a preferred walk-on sought specifically for this week’s role, playing the triple-option quarterback. But even so, the Midshipmen will present Bertrand with a level of the triple-option he hasn’t faced before. To help combat that difference in Saturday’s pace, the linebacker said the defense relies on film and a walkthrough wall that “projects an end zone copy of the film.”

That film study is a crucial part of gearing up for Saturday’s matchup. When the Irish played Navy two years ago, Bertrand was a freshman playing special teams. Thinking back to that game, one memory comes instantly to mind, a fond one but not necessarily one that will help with this week’s prep.

“We still joke about Paul Moala, and we call him ‘Touchdown Paul,’” Bertrand said, referencing the fumble recovery the now-senior linebacker returned to the end zone which was really more of an intercepted pitch than anything else.

Bertrand didn’t see the field on defense in that game. In the two years since then, his role has transformed, with the most dramatic change coming after an ankle injury sidelined Marist Liufau for the season. That pushed Bertrand from reserve to starter only a week before the season began, and Liufau has since been joined by Moala (Achilles) and senior Shayne Simon (shoulder), further lessening the bodies available at linebacker. Now, Bertrand leads the team in tackles, with 71 on the season. His 43 unassisted tackles rank higher than anyone else’s total tackles (Isaiah Foskey trails him with 39 total).

But it has come with a grueling workload that has started to take its midseason toll.

“It’s just little injuries that you’d expect,” Bertrand said. “Ankle, wrist, some typical linebacker kind of stuff.”

Injuries “you’d expect” when a player shoulders this kind of load: According to Tim O’Malley of Irish Illustrated, Bertrand has played a total of 512 snaps, consistently logging single-game snap counts in the 60s and 70s. Those numbers decreased in the last two weeks; he played 47 snaps against Southern Cal and 49 against North Carolina.

“We have seen maybe what you have seen, that we need to take some of the load off of these guys relative to the amount of snaps that have been taken,” Brian Kelly said Monday, referring to Bertrand and Mike linebacker Drew White.

Kelly added that the change to their practice schedule comes through limited contact, not to slowing down the pace of play. It’s a mindset geared toward preparing them for Saturday’s pace without adding unnecessary strain on the worn-down linebackers.

White’s season snap count is 354. While that mark is significantly lower than Bertrand’s, Kelly said the fifth-year captain has been dealing with a shoulder injury that factored into his playing time against North Carolina.

“I would be less than truthful if I said he was 100 percent for last weekend’s game and probably in some instances, if we could, we wouldn’t have played him,” Kelly said. “But trying to keep him out of the lineup is another thing.”

Throughout the process, Bertrand said the two have enjoyed playing alongside each other, adding that they communicate extremely well. 

“He’s just a really gritty guy, and he’s fought through injuries,” Bertrand said. “He brings a lot of experience to it. And so he’s been able to just teach me a lot on the field and off the field.”

Off the field, Bertrand is focusing on recovering from the heavy workload of the first half of the season — an effort that was significantly bolstered by a few extra days of rest and by a relaxed class load. Bertrand said he loaded up his summer workload so he would be taking only 12 credits in-season. That made Notre Dame’s midterm week, coinciding with the football team’s idle week, a bit less stressful for Bertrand, who is already known on the team for his disciplined time management that leads to shockingly healthy sleep habits.

“I think that the bye week did just great things for me,” he said. “I was able to get my feet back under me, I was able to just emphasize my recovery, my sleep, just every aspect.”

That recovery will be needed for a shallow linebacking corps facing the triple-option for the first time in two years.

No. 10 Notre Dame (7-1) hosts Navy (2-6) at 3:30 ET on NBC on Saturday. The game kicks off an hour later than most Irish home afternoon games, not coincidentally a day before clocks “fall back” at the end of daylight saving time.

A senior at Notre Dame studying Film & Television with a Journalism minor, Caroline Pineda has assisted the “ND on NBC” broadcasts from the sideline since 2019 and is bringing some much-needed quality writing to “Inside the Irish” this season, as well, just as she did throughout 2020.