VANCOUVER - When Jabar Westerman first took the field in training camp in June, he stood out for how little he said.
But times have changed.
"Since about his third game, he's kind of opened up, because he's finally getting to know guys," said Lions defensive line coach Carl Hairston. "Guys joke and play around with him, so right now he's the lead clown."
But Hairston, known for being a demanding coach, has no complaints about the Brampton, Ont., product's off-field antics.
"He's come a long way from when we first drafted him," said Hairston. "He was shy. He wouldn't open up with players. He's gotten better at that, and that's made him a better football player."
Westerman's improved play and more talkative demeanour have earned him his first CFL start. He will suit up at tackle in place of the suspended Khalif Mitchell on Sunday when the Lions (4-2) host the Saskatchewan Roughriders (3-3).
"It means a lot," said Westerman after his team's walk-through Saturday at B.C. Place Stadium. "I didn't know it was going to come this early. It's unfortunate that it came at this time in the situation that we're in (with Mitchell)."
The Lions traded up with the Edmonton Eskimos to select Westerman, an Eastern Michigan product, second overall in this year's CFL draft. The defending Grey Cup champions had a hole to fill following the retirement of veteran Canadian Brent Johnson.
Westerman has fared well, platooning as part of a six-man rotation on the front four — relatively quietly.
But he has still managed to impress defensive back Korey Banks, who predicted Westerman will have a long career like Johnson. Banks is not one to praise rookies quickly, but he said Westerman has fit in really well.
"He's a great character guy," said Banks. "He doesn't let much get to him, and we have fun in there (in the locker-room)."
"I've got my personality," said Westerman. "You just don't see it. Other than that, I just come to work and become part of the family."
So far, so good. He picked up his first career sack in an 18-9 win over Toronto on Aug. 6 before a bye week.
"It was pretty exciting getting my first sack," said Westerman, who has three tackles to his credit. "I got my first one out of the way. Hopefully, there's more to come."
He has been limited to 15-20 snaps per game, but is in position to see many more. Hairston said the increased reps will further Westerman's improvement.
The defensive line coach said the rookie's strength thus far has been stopping the run. He benefits from his explosiveness and long arms.
"He can get his hands on blockers faster than anybody that I've coached," said Hairston, a former NFL defensive lineman who has been coaching in the U.S. since 1995.
While Westerman's first CFL start has come quickly, Maurice Evans finally gets another chance to play a regular-season game as he rotates with the rookie at Mitchell's defensive tackle spot.
Evans joined the Lions as a free agent in the off-season after bouncing around the NFL with the New York Giants, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and Chicago Bears the past three seasons.
He's hard-pressed to remember the opponent in his last NFL pre-season game with Chicago.
"That's how long it's been," said Evans, a 24-year-old from Brooklyn, N.Y. "It might have been Oakland."
Evans spent the first six games of the season on the practice roster. He has not played a meaningful game since suiting up for Penn State in the 2009 Rose Bowl against the University of Southern California.
"I've learned a lot," he said of his NFL sojourn. "It made me mature a lot. It made me understand what it takes to stick around in a league and stick around playing football. It just humbled me. It made me grow. It made me mature, because I was basically sitting on the sidelines. It made me develop that hunger for the game again."
The Lions are hungry for a win after losing to the Riders in their first meeting last month in Regina. Meanwhile, Saskatchewan is eager to end a three-game losing streak.
Westerman, Evans and the rest of the Lions' defensive line are in position to pounce on a revised Saskatchewan offensive line. The Riders have allowed 13 sacks this season while the Lions have only surrendered six.
Chris Best, a seven-year veteran who played university football at Duke and Waterloo, will shift to centre from guard for Saskatchewan as a result of Dominic Picard's ankle injury. Second-year tackle Patrick Neufeld will start for only the third time this season.
Saskatchewan coach Cory Chamblin expressed confidence in both of them.
"Best is a guy that graduated from one of the top schools in the U.S., so I think he's very smart and he can handle all the calls," said Chamblin. "He was a pretty good blocker at guard for us, and pass protector, so I think he'll do the same thing at the centre position.
"Neufeld is a young guy who's been in the league for a couple years and who is getting experience," said Chamblin. "He can do it, and I think he'll do it for a while."
The Riders' field boss did not express much concern about his club's losing streak, either. Noting all of the games have been close, Chamblin said the Riders just have to make sure they stay in the game and "close the game."
When the Lions aren't trying to contain Saskatchewan quarterback Darian Durant and the offence, they will try to excel on special teams. In the previous contest, Saskatchewan prevailed on Tristan Jackson's 129-yard touchdown return off a missed Paul McCallum field goal.
The long return raised questions about whether Lions coach Mike Benevides is willing to have McCallum attempt long field goals rather than punt.
"The confidence isn't about him," said Benevides. "He's going to have to make those kicks. We'll take those shots when I see fit."