BERKELEY -- When Noah Westerfield took his official visit to California way back in January, the then-208-pounder knew that he would wind up committing. Little did he know, at that point, that he'd be starting, midway through his freshman season, as a 6-foot-3, 240-pound defensive end.
But, his mother did.
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“His mother told me, ‘He’s going to play early,’” says Bears linebacker coach Garret Chachere -- Westerfield’s primary recruiter when he was still the defensive ends coach. “She told me. He’s got a sister who plays basketball, so she’s not one of these ladies that’s like, ‘My son’s the greatest.’ She just said, ‘Coach, I’ll tell you this: You’ve got somebody who people are going to talk about. He’s going to play early for you, coach.’ Just from our conversations, I thought, ‘She might be right.’”
As it turns out, ever since the opener against Northwestern, Shirley Westerfield has been proven right. On Saturday, she’ll be proven downright prophetic, as, without the services of pass-rusher extraordinaire Brennan Scarlett (sprained knee), the Bears will start the true freshman against UCLA.
“The thing we have to do, when somebody goes down, the next man has to step up. The guy that’s probably done as good a job as anybody for rushing the passer for us has been Noah Westerfield,” says head coach Sonny Dykes.
Westerfield still has trouble getting his head around the idea.
“It was pretty crazy to me, during camp, just the fact that I was getting reps, but I really haven’t wrapped my mind around it yet,” he says. “I’m just going where coach Dykes and coach [Fred] Tate tell me to go, and coach [Art] Kaufman. I’m just being the dummy and not really thinking about it too much, because I don’t want to get my head pumped up. A lot of my friends are playing, like my friend Jamal Adams at LSU, he’s playing. He seems like he’s taking it all in, but I just want to stay humble and keep doing what I do.”
“I was just trying to chip away,” says Chachere, who, two summers ago, first found out about Westerfield – the long, lean and powerful defensive end/outside linebacker for Frisco (Tex.) Wakeland, and, about a year ago, started to talk to the defender once every three weeks, then once every two weeks, then every week.
At the time, Westerfield had already been committed to Northwestern – a school close to many, many family members. Only his mother’s brother was out on the West Coast, in San Jose. Still, though, whenever Chachere called, Westerfield picked up.
“I told him, ‘I’m not trying to get you to decommit from Northwestern right now; I’m just trying to call you every now and then, and maybe we get a chance to know each other,’” says Chachere. “He was very open from the first time I talked to him, so I knew I had a chance. He was open to talking. He was a talkative kid. You could have a conversation. He could carry a conversation. We had a lot of long conversations.”
As the relationship continued to build, the two became very comfortable talking to one another, and Westerfield was starting to gain interest from some other, big-name schools.
“My senior year, I was expecting to get five or six more offers from big schools like LSU, Texas A&M, and a lot of schools told me that they would look at me through my first three games and my scrimmages,” says Westerfield.
Those schools never got a chance to see that first-three-games tape. In his second scrimmage, Westerfield broke his hand while playing – wait for it – wide receiver.
“They tried him at wide receiver, because he was so athletic,” Chachere shakes his head. “He was saying, ‘Coach, I broke my hand playing wide receiver,’ and I’m thinking, ‘That’s awesome that they would even put you at wide receiver.’ I’m on the right cat.”
While other schools fell away, in part owing to his commitment to Northwestern (and the Wildcats' no-visit policy for commits) and in part due to him not having early-season film (he missed the first three games), Chachere stayed on Westerfield. The first weekend after the season ended, Chachere was in a Frisco, Tex., gym, watching Westerfield’s basketball practice – one of the main reasons he was so slim coming in to Berkeley.
“Basketball season, the first day of basketball camp, we had to run four or five suicides, which is crazy running for basketball. The first day, I lost five pounds. It was downhill from that,” smiles Westerfield.
“He was playing basketball, and I went to basketball practice. I got a chance to talk to him, and his mom and dad were coming to pick him up, so I kind of got them all,” says Chachere. “It just flourished from there. He was the kind of kid I wanted to play defensive end for me. I think it helped, at the time, that he was going to be playing for me. I think it was that.”
Soon after he was hired, defensive coordinator Art Kaufman went to see Westerfield in person.
“I got here in January, and he was one of the first guys I went to see,” says Kaufman, who saw Westerfield within seven days of getting the job. “I walked in the door, and I knew he had the frame. I knew he’d be what we wanted. I just didn’t know when he would be heavy enough. That’s been a pleasant surprise. I knew when I saw him, and I had seen his film and met his family, and knew where he comes from, that made a lot of difference.”
Westerfield took his official visit, and, quietly, before he actually set foot on campus, committed to the Bears. He let things out publicly when the weekend was over, on Jan. 26.
He was barely over 200 pounds. Then, the work started.
“I think he was 205 pounds on his visit in January, and he was 225 when he got here in June, and he was 240 by the time we started,” says Kaufman. “The big thing with him is, he’s been coached very well in high school. His business approach to things, I think that’s the biggest thing.”
It wasn’t easy for Westerfield to get so big, so quickly, but it wasn’t a surprise that he got so big, at least for Kaufman.
“You see guys that’ll gain weight, but not very often do you see that, and the other thing is, he’s got really good strength level,” says the first-year defensive coordinator.
That strength has even been a surprise for Westerfield.
“Coming from Texas, our linemen were already pretty strong, and I came from a district that was pretty much all-run, so I wasn’t getting any pass rush anyways in high school, so I was in the trench the whole time,” says Westerfield. “Coming out here, guys are falling back when I push them down. I’ve never had a lineman fall down when I pushed him. That’s as a freshman. I can’t wait until I’m a senior. I’m going to be running these kids over. It’s going to be crazy.”
If there’s anything Westerfield has in spades, it’s confidence, and plenty of it.
“The biggest thing that I can say about him is, he is confident,” says Kaufman. “He’s going to make his mistakes, but he’s played enough now that he knows what we’re doing. He’s a smart player, he’s a young player, but he’s a smart guy for his age, and the lack of experience he’s got, he makes up for with intelligence.”
Intelligence is why Westerfield was able to keep up conversationally with the talkative and verbose Chachere, and it was one of the reasons why Westerfield has played in each of Cal’s first six games. As confident as he is, he’s also his worst critic.
“If I had to grade myself, I’d probably give me a C+,” Westerfield says. “Some of the small stuff – Arizona, I should have had three sacks, Northwestern, I should have had a tackle on the goal line, last week, should have had three more tackles – I got juked down here at the end. I should have done so much better. This year, coming in, being new to the program and being new to the whole scheme – I played outside backer in high school – so just playing in, it takes some getting used to.”
That heady brew of self-confidence and self-criticism is one of the reasons that, on Saturday, he’ll be starting.
“The whole process began when they called me back in January and February, telling me that I was going to redshirt, because I was too small,” Westerfield says. “When I got here, I was so much bigger than they thought. Even in camp, they said, ‘Well, you’re looking good right now, and we might put you into the rotation,’ but I was like, ‘OK, I’ll probably redshirt.’ Out of nowhere, he threw me in second string, and I was like, ‘Well, I guess I’m playing now.’
“Now, this unfortunate thing happened to B-Scar, and I’ve just got to step up. I wasn’t expecting that at all.”
When Westerfield first met Scarlett, he only knew the redshirt junior from the publicity materials around the campus and the city. Scarlett, Westerfield muses, didn’t have any idea who he was.
“I wouldn’t expect him to,” Westerfield grins. “You’re a five-star, four-star recruit, whatever you were coming in, you’re the big man on campus.”
Westerfield remembers that first day the two of them met, on the field at Memorial Stadium.
“I didn’t know who Brennan Scarlett was after our first day here,” he says. “I was just thinking I would go in, I would meet everybody, but the first day I came in, I saw him on the field doing hand work and everything. He said, ‘I’m Brennan Scarlett. I’m a defensive end.’ I was like, ‘I see your picture everywhere on campus, on every flier, on every poster; I know who you are already!’ He told me to keep grinding. I told him I was going to redshirt, and he said, ‘Just keep your head up’ and now I’m playing behind him, and I’m in front of him just because of his injury. It’s crazy.”
Since that day, Westerfield says that Scarlett has been a “big” part of his development, but he’ll be stepping into some big cleats come Saturday, especially considering the lack of a pass rush so far this season – and the absence of the one player who’s been able to provide consistent pressure on the outside.
“He’s a young player that gets better every week,” says Dykes. “He’s athletic, he has some length, he’s what you’re looking for at that defensive end position, and so I think he’ll be a guy that we can hopefully get a good, consistent pass rush from.”
While his physical skill and the fact that he’s been able to add so much size so quickly certainly play a role in the fact that Westerfield is the next man up, it’s the man himself that’s the biggest reason.
“I thought he was a kid that would be that kind of player one day, but the surprising part is not that he is in that role; it’s that he’s in that role so quickly,” says Chachere. “The thing that allows him to be what he is now is the thing that, when we were having those phone conversations last fall, was what I liked about him. I just knew the kid had something about him, that he was going to be a kid that was going to be good for the Cal football program, as a player and as a person. But, I didn’t think it would be this soon.”