Former walk-on West proves toughness

Ben West thought he had it down. It “clicked.” He was going to be physical and go at it hard.

But, it turns out, he went hard at offensive tackle Adam Haayer, who sent him hard to the ground after decking and flipping him over.

This was West’s first practice play as a member of Minnesota’s football team. The walk-on from Appleton, Wis., quickly realized this wasn’t high school anymore.

“I had the physical part down, but not the mental part at that point,” West said. “(Competing) is something I thought I could do from the beginning. If I didn’t think that, I wouldn’t have come here in the first place.”

These days, West is competing at as high a level as any Gophers defender. The fifth-year senior linebacker – who earned a scholarship before his sophomore season – is calling the plays and then making them.

Through three games, West leads the team with 21 tackles, four for losses. In Saturday’s 42-20 win at Ohio, he strapped a brace on his twisted left knee in the second quarter and still finished with a game-high 12 tackles and a sack.

After the game, defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Greg Hudson sang West’s praises despite a poor evaluation of the defense as a whole.

West wasn’t singing, and he wasn’t walking too well, either. But the pain has become a mental thing for him.

“I might be in pain,” West said. “But I don’t know what the pain that I’m feeling feels like to someone else. I question how much it really hurts. There’s no amount of pain that will keep me out, I don’t think.”

A big portion of the credit for statements like those belongs to Hudson. West said the vast amount of teaching and coaching through the years translates into his coaching.

An example is how Hudson issued West an ultimatum when West was struggling to earn playing time during spring practice two years ago.

“He said, ‘I’ll give you one more chance, and if you screw up, I’m never putting you in again,’ ” West said.

Understandably, he has been much more focused since then. West said the tough love had a positive impact on him, and he appreciates it to this day.

As for Hudson, he said he’s always seen the “tough kid” and solid football player West has become. He calls him “the true jack-of-all-trades, master of none.”

“Coach (Glen) Mason says, ‘Always take tough guys,’ ” Hudson said. “Ben’s a tough guy, and you can win with tough guys.”

Hudson adds that, much like other former walk-ons, West is self-motivated and coachable. One of seven players who graduated before the season, West now has ample time to be coached.

All he has to do academically this semester is take one class. He jokes that he spends so much time at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex that Hudson gets sick of him.

West said he has watched game film from the first two games about 30 times. He craves more material to study and knows the extra free time will help him later in the season.

The film from Saturday can be studied as an example of how West plays well. It is a reminder of how the always physically-tough West is now a mentally-tough team leader.

Defensive tackle Darrell Reid, who practiced with West at linebacker in his redshirt season of 2000, sees the tough leader West has become.

During the first series of the Tulsa game Aug. 30, West dispensed some Haayer-like punishment on his teammate.

“He made a play, and I went to go give him some love and celebrate with him a little bit,” Reid said. “He hit me so hard my helmet went up. He just popped me in the face. He’s so excited all the time. You’ve got to feed off of that. The rest of the defense does.”