THOUSAND OAKS, Calif. – Nsimba Webster caught an inside screen pass and proceeded to bolt upfield past a host of defenders, including inside linebacker Ketner Kupp.
A familiar scene in an unfamiliar setting for the former Eastern Washington standouts, a pair of undrafted rookies hoping to carve out roles with the Los Angeles Rams come late August.
The temperatures were nearing triple digits at the defending NFC champion’s practice field Tuesday at Cal Lutheran University, as were the decibels from the facility’s speakers. The Rams’ hip-hop-heavy playlist could be heard throughout the Division III school’s picturesque campus.
At a nearby linebacker station, Samson Ebukam, a two-year starter, was wrapping his sizable arms around a tackling bag with the same energetic burst he had in Cheney.
Practice squad center and former EWU standout Aaron Neary donned a sweat-drenched blue practice jersey – the defense wore white – as he mixed it up with the behemoths in his position group. This is his third year with the team.
The Rams’ most trustworthy receiver, former EWU record-breaker Cooper Kupp, wore a red no-contact jersey as he participated in individual drills and jog-throughs, spending much of his time with trainers helping him rehab from a season-ending knee injury sustained in November.
Five former EWU standouts are on the roster of one of the NFL’s premier organizations, an aberration that isn’t lost on Rams head coach Sean McVay.
“Good football players,” McVay said. “Eastern Washington has a lot of good, productive players who’ve had success on our team and throughout the league in general.
“When you look at Samson and Cooper Kupp from our (staff’s) first draft class (in 2017), those are special guys. (EWU) is just good football players who are good people, and that’s what we look for.”
Ebukam, an All-American at at EWU, couldn’t immediately think of an FBS Power 5 school that has five of its products on a NFL roster.
He thought having three the past two seasons was an anomaly. With the addition of Webster and Ketner Kupp by way of undrafted free-agent contracts, he’s taken aback, and proud.
“It just goes to show you the type of talent we had at EWU,” said Ebukam, who had 40 tackles, three sacks and an interception last season. “(Former EWU head coach and current California offensive coordinator) Beau Baldwin knows how to pick them. He picked all of us, and we worked our way up here.
“It’s surreal. I never thought there’d be five. L.A. loves us, man.”
Webster, a speedster who racked up 1,379 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns last season despite a nagging foot injury, got a call from the Rams’ organization moments after the final day of the NFL draft in April.
The All-Big Sky talent has NFL-level explosion, Ebukam said, and has taken the time to learn from Cooper Kupp, who has quickly established himself as one of the top young targets in the league.
“He was the guy I learned from a lot at EWU,” Webster said of Kupp. “To be in this position to learn from him all over again, it’s been great.”
Webster is aiming for a career path similar to his former college teammate Kendrick Bourne, a receiver who went undrafted in 2017 but carved out a starting role with the San Francisco 49ers last season.
Both Kupps, Ebukam, Bourne and Webster were on the 2016 EWU team that upset Washington State in Pullman and were a play away from advancing to the FCS national title game.
“I’m thankful to be here. It’s a new process, a new journey and I’m trying to work my way up the ranks,” Webster said. “There’s five of us here now, which is crazy, but it’s not going to end with us.
“More (EWU players) will come up from college and take spots around this league.”
Ketner also feels fortunate for his current slot.
EWU’s leading tackler in 2018, Ketner was invited to San Francisco’s rookie camp in May, but he said the 49ers organization chose to go in another direction.
A couple of days later, the Rams gave Ketner a workout and decided to keep him around.
“I felt like I did what I needed to for the 49ers, but they ended up signing someone else,” Ketner said. “So I had the confidence to get down here, and it feels like this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Similar to his practice days at EWU and Davis High in Yakima, Ketner found himself squared up against older Kupp brother Cooper in drills Tuesday.
Cooper, who joked that Ketner has been sleeping on his couch most nights and eating a lot of his food, is relishing the experience
“It’s so much fun,” Cooper said. “There’s been a couple times where I had to block (Ketner), a throwback to our college days.”
Neary, from Hanford, Washington, is loving the EWU reunion.
“These are guys I know and matured with in college, and to be teamed up with then again is pretty, pretty special,” said Neary, an All-American at EWU as a senior in 2015. “One of the best teams in the NFL is recruiting out of EWU, which shows you how EWU operates.”
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