Heading into this season, there was a lot of optimism around WILL Marist Liufau becoming a big-time playmaker for the Notre Dame defense. Reports were Liufau was a holy terror in camp. Unfortunately, he was injured and lost for the year before the season started. Fortunately, his replacement JD Bertrand has emerged as a tackling machine and is off to a historic start to his season.
Through three games in 2021, JD Bertrand has already amassed 35 tackles for the Fighting Irish defense. If you’re reading this thinking, “that sounds like a lot.” It’s because it is. It’s the most tackles any Notre Dame player has had through three games in a season since former Notre Dame great Courtney Watson racked up 39 through the first three games of 2021. Watson was eventually a 2nd round NFL Draft pick by the New Orleans Saints in 2003.
Watson’s pace in 2021 slowed considerably after the first three games, and he finished the year with 76 tackles in 11 games before adding 90 tackles in 2002. At Bertrand’s current pace (11.6 tackles per game), he’d finish with 140. While he could eventually trail off that pace, like Watson, that likely won’t happen this weekend against the run-heavy Wisconsin Badgers. If anything, another 12 or 13 tackle day is likely for Notre Dame’s new WILL.
Brian Kelly talked about how deep Notre Dame was at linebacker – specifically WILL – long before injuries started to ravage the unit in the pre-season. In addition to Liufau, Notre Dame lost backup WILL Shayne Simon and backup ROVER Paul Moala. At the time, it sounded like coachspeak. However, it’s proving not to be as we see with JD Bertrand.
Even before the Liufau injury, reports from camp emerged that Bertrand would play and maybe play a lot. As a result, Liufau got some looks at ROVER with Bertrand at the WILL. It is a damn shame that Notre Dame fans have to wait a year to see that alignment because, with the early returns on Bertrand, combined with what we saw from Liufau last year, that alignment would have been a lot of fun to watch.
Bertrand’s path here has been fascinating. During his recruitment, there were rumors that he might have to “grey shirt” at Notre Dame to secure his spot because scholarship numbers were looking tight. Grey shirting is essentially paying your own way as a preferred walkon for a year until a scholarship becomes available. That never happened as the scholarships numbers worked themselves out just like they seem to every year. As a true freshman, Bertrand drew rave reviews in camp in 2019, but then we didn’t see him that fall. Or at all, really in 2020.
We are seeing him – as are opposing defenses – plenty in 2021. Bertrand’s 35 tackles aren’t empty tackles happening 10, 12 yards downfield. They have been impactful. He’s also picked up 4.5 TFL along the way in addition to some critical third-down stops to get Notre Dame off the field. He had a particularly nice stuff on what turned out to be an ill-fated screen pass by Purdue last week. Bertrand sniffed it out and blew it up.
It will be interesting to see what happens with the linebackers as a whole when some of the more pass-happy offenses start coming to town in October, but this weekend, Bertrand figures to be a busy, busy man. So too does his linebacker running mate Drew White who has been as much of a surprise for having a quiet start to the season as Bertrand has been for his torrid start. White has just 13 tackles total this season – the same as reserve ROVER Isaiah Pryor.
Notre Dame has undoubtedly missed Marist Liufau’s playmaking ability so far this year, but JD Bertrand’s emergence has more than mitigated that loss. There’s no reason to expect Bertrand to slow down the next couple of weeks either with Wisconsin this weekend and Cincinnati the following. Notre Dame will need him to play at the same level he has to have a chance at entering their bye following that Cincinnati game with a zero in the loss column.