California Defensive End Cameron Saffle Comes Back from Knee Injury to Play as True Freshman

Cameron Saffle got his first live action against Utah, and Cal defensive line coach Fred Tate says that was no fluke. "He has a chance," Tate says, "to be really special."

Cameron Saffle's recruitment was unique, to say the least. His introduction to the California coaching staff was a cold call he made to defensive line coach Fred Tate.

"If I can remember right, he reached out to us, I looked at his film, and then I went and saw him, because I like to size 'em up," says Tate. "I wanted to go see him and see what kind of body you are, and what kind of person you are, sit and actually talk to you, make sure you can count to three. That being said, we developed that relationship, and we viewed his film, liked it, and went with the offer."

Tate's had plenty of prospects email him film. He's had plenty of prospects make their case for an offer, but, Tate says, there was something different about Saffle.

"We get emails all the time from different services, some young men reach out to you, or somebody tells you about a kid, but me, instead of overlooking a lot of that stuff, I actually click on a lot of that, and say, 'Can this guy play for Cal? Can he get into Cal?'" says Tate. "A lot of research goes into it before you actually make the move. "For one reason or another, they don't pan out, whether it's academics or size or whatever. When it panned out, I didn't really recruit the Washington area. I'd only been up there once, and when we looked at him, I said, 'This kid's pretty good.' I kept looking, then went there to visit him and see him. That was what we wanted."

Tate never saw Saffle play in person. "I don't have to watch a game, in person," he says. "I can look at the film and see what we need to see. My whole deal is seeing the young man, give him the eyeball test. Everything about the kid, what the coaches were saying, and watching him on film, he was a kid that played hard, every play. I don't care how many stars he's got, or who's recruiting him. I don't get into that. What can he do for our system, and what can we do with our coaches, with that young man?"

It turns out, quite a bit, but not after a road block sprung up in Saffle's path.

In the middle of his senior season at Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline, though, Saffle tore his ACL. He had already committed to the Bears. He was fortunate, he says, that it wasn't a complete blow-out of his knee. He was even more fortunate that the coaches to whom he'd reached out at the start of his recruitment -- the coaches he called and emailed because he wanted that Bears offer -- were not just supportive, but calming, as well.

"It was a process, but you've got to keep a strong mindset," says Saffle. "It helped with the reassurances from the coaches, that they said, 'Don't worry about it. Get through it. When you're healthy, you get back on the field, and that's what happened."

And get back on the field he did. A week ago, Saffle made his collegiate debut, playing in 15 plays against then-No. 5 Utah, backing up sacks leader Kyle Kragen"Coming in here, I never gave myself any discredit, with my injury; I just kept working hard, and when time came to start playing football, I started playing football," Saffle says.

Kragen has more sacks than either of the sack leaders the past two years already, and they have more turnovers and more sacks than any team in the nation. This is a very different defensive line than Saffle thought he was coming into, and he's found a prototype in Kragen.

"It helps, watching Kragen, especially being on the left side, now," Saffle says. "I'm able to watch his technique, hsi form, and go off that. It's a big help, being able to watch a senior like that."

It's hard not to see the similarities between Kragen and Saffle, though Kragen points out that he was much smaller than Saffle his first year out of Danville (Calif.) San Ramon Valley.

"We're around the same height, same weight, but he's got a lot more technique than I do," Saffle says. "I've got a lot more things to work on. We look similar. Some people were telling me last weekend that they were getting lost between 13 and 51, because we look so similar."

"Over the past couple weeks, I've gotten to know him better, and tried to help him out however I can," Kragen says. "I don't know how much I can help him, but I try to tell him whatever I can to help him out."

The uniform numbers may be mirror images, but physically, the two have been on very different paths.

Kragen, in his first year at Diablo Valley College, was 212 pounds. Saffle is significantly bigger.

"Coming in, I wasn't guaranteeing myself anything, but I knew I wanted to try to get to the position that I'm in now," he says. "Nothing's guaranteed, from this point on out, but coming in, I was working hard. I gained 40 pounds coming in here."

"He's stronger than I was when I was that young," says Kragen. "I see the same sort of work ethic, and the drive to learn and be better. I see that." From Saffle's official visit in January to the time he got on campus, he went from 214 pounds to his current 248, and he did that on one leg.

"I actually found this trainer -- Tracy Ford -- in Bellevue, and he trains all the Seahawks players, and a lot of players on the Raiders and 49ers," says Saffle. "I gave him a call, because a bunch of players referred to him, and me and him were just getting at it. He found the right recipe to get muscle on my body. Me and my therapist relayed information to each other, and we were on the same page. The therapist worked on the knee, and Tracy worked with the upper body. Coming in here, I knew that when my time came to do legs, I couldn't take any reps off. I finally got my legs back, so I don't look like a triangle anymore."

Getting to come in during the summer and work on rehabbing his knee in the Simpson Center for Student-Athlete High Performance helped accelerate his recovery.

"Being around trainers 24-7 definitely helps the process, coming from back home, where you get to see a therapist three times a week, and here, you get to see a therapist twice a day," says Saffle. "Doing therapy every day helps a lot more with getting back on the field."

Two weeks ago, Saffle began seeing full-contact reps in practice. He wasn't cleared to play in front of the hometown fans in Seattle, but by the time the Bears headed to Salt Lake City to face the Utes, he was more than ready.

For Tate, it was an easy call.

"He's a kid that we think can give us some quality snaps," Tate says. "If we can get 15-20 plays out of him the rest of the way, he'll end up being a better player, next year."

The Bears already had quite a bit of depth at the defensive end position -- arguably, the defensive line was the deepest position group outside of the wide receivers -- but, Tate says, "he's helped us.""We're at that point in the season, where we've got guys knicked up, banged up, Kragen's kind of banged up, and I'd be crazy to think that we're not going to need everybody here, in three weeks, when it's the thick of the stretch," Tate says. "Cameron did some things, even though he was hurt, he was actually practicing with us, over on the other field. He wasn't practicing with the scout team. He's done some things that we said, 'This kid's got a chance to be really special,' and he'll probably be special this year."

So, last week, with two minutes left in the first quarter, Tate sent Saffle in.

"Me and coach Tate were talking the weeks prior, and we had a discussion about whether or not I should redshirt, or if I came back healthy, and I showed that I could play, maybe they should throw me in," Saffle says. "Playing in the game on Saturday, I was a little jumpy.

"Once I got the first play in, I got comfortable. To me, it was a big accomplishment, getting over my injury, and being able to show out in just a week, a week and a half of practice, and being able to prove to the coaches that they could throw me in and trust me."

"He's a hard worker," Tate says. "He's an attention-to-detail guy. He knows everything that we're doing. He's smart, and he's football savvy."

"I don't know coach's perspective on me calling him, and the way I got recruited. My relationship with coach Tate, the whole D-line, it's the same -- he'll be real with us, and we'll be real with him," says Saffle. "I think everyone has a good trust level. We haven't given him a reason not to trust us." Top Stories