ST. LOUIS — The numbers jump off the page as if they were produced in a video game: 19 1/2 sacks (one short of the Division II record) and 29 1/2 tackles for loss in 2012. Those earned him the Defensive Player of the Year award for Division II. Then, as opponents started paying more attention, just seven sacks, but still 19 1/2 tackles for loss in 2013.
Throw in two sacks in the East-West Shrine Game last January to go with the game’s defensive MVP and you’d think some NFL team would take a shot in the draft on an athletic pass rusher who is 6 feet 4, 267 pounds.
Didn’t happen. No team called Ethan Westbrooks’ name through 256 selections, and he ended up signing with the Rams as an undrafted free agent. He was enough in demand to receive a $20,000 signing bonus from the Rams, the most the Rams paid, and $30,000 of his rookie salary was guaranteed.
There were whispers that Westbrooks could be uncoachable, witness his 30 penalties in two seasons at West Texas A&M, with 15 for being offside. Plus, there were questions about the competition he faced and the school-jumping he did, going from San Joaquin Delta Junior College to Cosumnes River Junior College (where he didn’t play) to Sacramento City College and finishing at West Texas A&M.
In Westbrooks’ mind, that all is now history as he aims to prove good football is played at the Division II level.
"It’s always harder to go from junior college to Division II and then go to the NFL because you never really play against what most people think is the best competition," he said while preparing for Saturday’s game against the Cleveland Browns. "Over the years, I felt Division I is just a name. People assume that everybody there is just the best of the best. You soon find out some of those dudes shouldn’t be playing. I know you can definitely come out of Division II, whether you spend two years or four years. It’s really how hard you want it."
And while Westbrooks is soft-spoken and understated, he wants it. There is the small tattoo on the left side of his face that says, "Laugh now, Cry later," and the motivation he has to provide for his 3-year-old daughter, Karina.
"She’s everything to me," Westbrooks says. "That’s my sun and my moon, my world. I live for the day I can do anything and everything for her. I pretty much live for her. Going into every game, I try to keep her in the back of my mind and the front of my mind. At one point in time, I was playing football for fun. It’s still fun, but now it’s more because if she wants something, I’ll be able to give it to her."
As for the tattoo, Westbrooks got it while he was going to school in Sacramento and working at a Toys "R" Us. He saw the tattoo as motivation to never have to work a 9-to-5 job in the future where someone might judge him by something other than his ability.
"I was saying not to let society tell me what I can or can’t do," he said. "The happiest people are those that live their life to the fullest. I didn’t think it would affect me too much. I honestly didn’t give too much thought about the future. It was something I wanted deep down inside. I don’t regret it at all."
Now there is the matter of trying to make the Rams’ roster. The team still lists Westbrooks as a defensive tackle, although he has played mostly defensive end and that’s where he is placed on the depth chart.
It’s clear the competition for a fifth end spot, if the Rams keep five, is between Westbrooks and seventh-round pick Michael Sam. After missing time at the start of the summer because of a hamstring injury suffered while working out before training camp, Westbrooks has shown steady improvement since he began practicing.
In the first game against New Orleans, he played 33 defensive snaps to Sam’s 32. Against Green Bay, Westbrooks entered the game in the second quarter and ended up with 39 snaps to Sam’s 27.
"I’m pleased with what I’ve been able to do," Westbrooks said. "I’ve shown some good things and there are still definitely things I know I need to work on. I have to just continue to try to get better every day. I feel I got better from the first game to the second game. In practice, I try to get better day by day and try to be as consistent as possible.
"I always felt I was able to play at a high level. The NFL was always a goal. I definitely strived to get here and now I’m doing the best I can to stay here."
Coaches have noticed. The day after the game against the Packers, coach Jeff Fisher said: "He’s making plays. He’s playing well against the run. He’s got pass-rush ability he’s shown; he’s put a lot of pressure on the passer. He’s an effort guy and he even got a chance on some special teams on kick return. It looks like he has a chance to do that."
Tuesday, Fisher followed up by saying: "There was a series of plays in the game that was quite impressive. A couple tackles for loss, a sack, a hit on the quarterback, just one play after another. Then he moved inside to tackle and was doing some stuff, so he’s really come on. He’s got obviously a couple of big weeks ahead of him, but he’s shown he can do some things."
In two preseason games, according to the coaches’ tape review, Sam has two tackles, one sack, two quarterback pressures and one quarterback hit. Westbrooks is second on the team with 11 tackles (nine solo), one sack, three quarterback pressures and one quarterback hit. His versatility is a strong point.
Not bad for a guy who signed with the Rams not knowing how high quality their defensive line was.
"But when I heard about how good the D-line was," he said, "I thought about how much you can learn from people. They’ve all been very helpful, as has (defensive line) coach (Mike) Waufle.
"He’s not your normal ‘player’ coach. He’s definitely a dude that likes to see his players succeed. I have talked with him in his office, watched film and went over Xs and Os with him. He’s lived in California; he’s a real cool dude."
While Westbrooks knows how important the next two games are, he says, "I don’t worry too much about it. I know I have to go out there and play hard every chance you get, whether it’s in practice or games. You have to make these coaches love you for whatever reason and feel comfortable enough to put you on the field.
"As far as thinking about the last two games, all you can do is play your heart out and leave it up to God. Go out there and play like every game is your last because it very well could be."
There is a strong suspicion Westbrooks doesn’t have to be concerned about that last game for quite a while.
Howard Balzer can be heard daily on H & Friends from 9-11 a.m. on FoxSportsRadio 1490.