California was 5-0, ranked No. 23 in the nation. Utah was No. 5. It had been almost exactly a year since true freshman Cameron Saffle had last played a competitive down of football because of a knee injury, but there he was, in the screaming sea of Utes fans, on the floor of Rice Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City.
Near the end of the first quarter, Bears defensive line coach Fred Tate surveyed his bench and scowled. Like many a seeker of midnight snacks, he opened the fridge one more time and found the same carton of milk, the same Tupperware of pasta and the same leftover brisket. He picked the carton of 2% Saffle.
The Sammamish, Wash., native stood up, the sound of his own pulse in his ears.
"Coach Tate grabbed me by the collar and he said, 'Don't mess up,' and he threw me in there," Saffle says. "It was more colorful than that. It was definitely not PG."
Tate lets out a quick snort at the memory of that moment, and flashes a smile. "I remember that quite well," he says, leaning back on a chair in his office, as, on his desk, his phone's speaker lets loose with the sound of a train whistle. It's appropriate, as even Saffle's name, in repetition, sounds like the chugga-chugga-chugga-chugga of a locomotive.
It felt like there was a full Union Pacific Challenger pounding away under Saffle's chest plate that night in Salt Lake City. The sound of his own heartbeat nearly drowned out the verbose and operose MUSS.
"I about had a heart attack before that first snap, but after that first snap ..." Saffle says.
"After that, it was over," Tate says. "The rest is history."
http://www.scout.com/college/california/story/1711859-kaufman-focused-on... "It's kind of weird, to be honest," Saffle says. "When I first walked into Utah, and see all these fans yelling at you, it's like, 'Oh, my God, it's the [Roman] Colosseum.' I think it was Kyle Kragen who said, 'It's just like practice.'"
Practice for Kragen and practice for Saffle, though, had been two very different experiences.
Saffle missed the final month of his senior season at Sammamish (Wash.) Skyline with what he thought was just a torn meniscus. It turned out to be much worse. Two months after the eighth game of the season, Saffle had surgery to repair the meniscus. While repairing the damage, doctors found that Saffle had a torn ACL, as well. A month after that, he had surgery to repair the ligament. He missed all of fall camp, and was limited during the first three weeks of the season. All he could do was lift weights. Since his first summer, he's gained 40 pounds. But, it was what he was doing during practice that caught Tate's eye.
"I'd slowly been doing pass rush and stuff, but I hadn't really done scout. I hadn't done a whole practice," Saffle says.
But, Tate was still watching him.
"What he did, which was impressive to me, was, when he was hurt, the entire time he was hurt, however long it was, even when he wasn't released, he was always on our field with us," Tate says.
If a player is healthy, and cleared, especially a young player, he'll head to the scout team. Saffle, because of the lengthy rehab on his knee, managed to stay as close as he could to the travel group.
"He stayed around me, and he stayed around the older guys, and he worked over there on our field with his rehab," Tate says. "He knew what to do. It wasn't like he was on the scout team for five weeks and we pulled him up. It kind of just happened. He was training with the trainers, and when we'd leave to go to the other field, he'd come over there. He was always around us, and it just happened. I saw that."
At the start of the preceding prep week for the Utes, Tate pulled Saffle into his office, sat him down, and told him that he had two practices -- Tuesday and Wednesday.
"Listen," Tate said, "you've got two practices to show me that you're man enough to play."
Tate, unbeknownst to Saffle, didn't need to see much more. The week before, he'd already been working Saffle in with the traveling defense.
"That week, coming up, we're like, 'OK, why wait? Why keep waiting?'" Tate says. "I knew that he had some stuff in him. Once he was fully released and fully healthy, I put him in with the older guys, in terms of what we were doing, like an inside drill going against the offense. He showed some flashes. Put him in on the scout team, showed some flashes. I went in there and told them, 'Alright, there's no reason why we shouldn't play him, I don't think.' We looked at his film, and made that decision and ran with it. That week was the week we said we said we were going to play him. Done. We were going to play him."
In staff meetings that Sunday, the decision was made.
"The kid wants to learn, and wants to play," Tate says. "It went on for so long, that I just let him stay, because he was so eager to be around and be a part of it and learn. I saw that from a distance. He was always with us. He knew what to do. He came to every meeting, did the whole nine yards, like he was playing."
Since Tate literally threw Saffle into that game against Utah, he's never provided the demanding perfectionist any reason to doubt him. He played in he final eight games off the bench, tallying 10 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss (-5 yards) and 1.0 sack (-3 yards), getting that first sack against Arizona State. Last week against the Sun Devils, he had two, his first of the season.
Saffle is currently ninth in the Pac-12 in tackles (28), ninth in solo tackles (19), 19th in sacks (2.0), and tied for third in tackles for loss.
"Saffle's got that spark, he's got something about him," Tate says. "If you watch him and you look at him and you study him, he's wide open all the time. That's what he brings, and I think other people -- not just the D-line, but other people -- feed off of that."
It used to be that the line fed off of Kragen and James Looney, but now, it's Looney and Saffle. As Saffle recalls last year's debut, hands hanging from the same collar Tate used to pluck him off the bench, Looney walks by, and, eyes sparkling mischievously, says, "Tell them about the bar!"
"I have no idea," Saffle shakes his head. "Looney's just messing with me. Me and Looney hang out a lot. We goof around with each other. I told him, [Monday], believe it or not, I said, 'The reason why we're starting to kick ass a little more is because we like each other, and second of all, we've got good chemistry.' I trust, if I'm going inside, I know Looney will be right back, and cover my protection on my side. Sure enough, when I go there, Looney's there, and Tony [Mekari] and D-Wil (DeVante Wilson) have the same thing on their side, and the guys behind us. I think we're a pretty close-knit group, and I think that's probably our biggest strength right now, is just how close we are."
But, soon, it's back to talking shop.
"They moved their tackle to center, so I was giving Looney some grief, because that guy's a good player," Saffle says, referring to J.J. Dielman, who started all last year at right tackle, including Saffle's debut. "I'm excited. It should be fun, and it should be a lot different from last year. I don't think they remember me from last year, so hopefully, I can do a little more.
Saffle played about 30 snaps against the Utes in 2015, and figure to play in many more, this time around. The Utes have allowed just five sacks all season -- second-fewest in the Pac-12 behind Stanford. The Bears, so far, have nine, and they have Saffle. The train isn't in his left breast anymore. Now, he's the locomotive.
"That kid's going to be a good player for Cal. The kid's a good player now," Tate says. "The more he plays, the better he gets. If he keeps progressing the way he is -- he's a relentless effort kid, very conscientious of what he's doing from technique to assignment and everything, and he plays his balls off."
Tate stretches out the last clause for emphasis. "It's unreal how hard he plays."