Established at linebacker, UCLA's Anthony Barr set for huge '13
When then-sophomore Anthony Barr walked into Jim Mora's office for the first time following Mora's hiring in December 2011, the newly arrived head coach was prepared to convince Barr to abandon the positions he'd played during his first two years on campus. Barr had split time between running back and wide receiver, and he amassed 15 carries, 12 receptions and 136 all-purpose yards over his freshman and sophomore seasons.
But Mora never had to instigate the potentially awkward conversation -- Barr beat him to the punch.
"I went to coach Mora and told him I wanted to try to be a linebacker," Barr said. "Coach smiled and said he was about to say the same thing."
"It was amazing," Mora said of the discussion. "We came to the conclusion that Barr should be a linebacker and on that very same day he came to the exact same decision. What a great decision by him."
Following Barr's second-team All-America junior campaign, this much is clear: Characterizing his choice as great is a massive understatement.
In 2012, Barr racked up 13.5 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss, second and fourth in the nation, respectively. He recorded at least one sack in 10 of the Bruins' 13 games. Perhaps most memorably, he delivered one of the most crushing -- and clean -- hits of the season, as his sack of USC's Matt Barkley ended the quarterback's college career and served as the lasting image from UCLA's first victory over its Los Angeles rival in six years.
All of this came from a player who hadn't played linebacker since he was 14 and, because of an injury, didn't start practicing at the position until a month before the start of his junior season. That's not to say he had never thought about making the switch: "All throughout high school I was told 'Play linebacker, play linebacker,'" Barr said.
Still, the 6-foot-4, 245-pound Barr could hardly have been blamed for wanting to remain an offensive threat; he averaged 171 rushing yards per game during his junior year at Loyola (Calif.) High. But after a broken ankle cut his senior year short and lingered throughout his freshman season at UCLA, Barr realized he was falling behind on the depth chart.
"My freshman summer at UCLA [my injury] was still bothering me," Barr said. "I didn't feel right and it kind of got to me mentally and messed with my play. I don't think I was fully recovered until the winter of 2011."
Barr's sophomore season wasn't significantly better, and by the time of his eventful meeting with Mora, he had just two touchdowns -- one rushing and one receiving -- to his name. Yet though Mora always thought Barr was better suited to be a linebacker, he never expected the junior to find so much success, so quickly.
"We all had high hopes, but for him to be able to make the transition that quickly is really unbelievable," Mora said. "Looking back on it, I just have to say, 'Wow.' I wouldn't trade him for any other defensive player in the country."
The last part of that quote may raise some eyebrows: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney is widely regarded as the nation's top defensive talent. But Mora upped the ante in April by making the case that Barr deserves the same level of the Heisman Trophy consideration that Clowney has already started to receive.
"UCLA needs to promote him [for the Heisman] and I'm going to promote him," Mora told reporters after a practice this spring, "and he needs to go out and promote himself by going out and playing great and helping his team win."
Mora has big expectations for his of second-year linebacker, but his goals aren't unrealistic. Barr boasts as much potential as any other linebacker in the FBS. In fact, he seriously considered turning pro at the end of last season, a decision he freely admits was far more difficult than his initial choice to switch positions.
As Barr grew more comfortable on the defensive side of the ball, his NFL draft stock skyrocketed. By the time last December rolled around, many analysts pegged him a potential top-10 pick.
Barr weighed his options with his mom and the UCLA coaching staff, particularly linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich. Everyone told him that one more year with the Bruins would pay dividends for both his development and his career.
On Dec. 31, Barr tweeted his intention to stay in Westwood. He shined throughout the spring, and he's ready to continue wreaking havoc this fall. UCLA's defense will need his standout play; the Bruins allowed 415.9 yards per game last season, eighth in the Pac-12.
But Barr is confident. He's happy with each of the major decisions he's made. Now, after exploding into the spotlight, he's ready to ascend to even loftier heights in 2013.
"I got a lot of tweets from the fans and I appreciate the love they give me, but in the end I had to make a selfish decision for me and my teammates," Barr said of his choice to come back for his senior year. "I think I made the right one."