The losses were piling up almost as fast as the carries for Anthony Barr in his first two seasons at UCLA as a running back.
Barr was a seldom-used running back for the Bruins for two seasons, accumulating 15 total carries. Meanwhile, UCLA won 10 total games in Barr’s first two seasons. Rick Neuheisel, an offensive coach who decided Barr was best suited as a running back, was ousted and replaced by the defensive-minded Jim Mora.
Mora offered a clean slate for all of the holdover Bruins. Barr saw an opportunity to really change his direction.
"The first couple of years I was playing offense and we were losing games and I wasn’t catching the ball much so I was pretty disappointed," Barr said last week after being drafted No. 9 overall by the Minnesota Vikings. "When coach Mora got to UCLA, I made it a point to introduce myself to him and I actually asked him, ‘What do you think about me playing defense?’"
Mora embraced the idea. Barr could only have dreamed where the change would lead him.
The wins and the production started to come. Barr’s last two seasons at UCLA included 19 wins and two bowl appearances. He set himself up as a first-round NFL Draft pick by tallying 23.5 sacks and 40.5 tackles for loss in two years as a linebacker. He added nine forced fumbles.
Instead of being on the receiving end of big hits — Barr was a big target as a running back, entering UCLA at 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds — he was doling out the punishment. He grew to 6-5 and said he added about seven to eight pounds a year and weighed in at 255 pounds at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.
Barr had the third-best time among all linebackers in the 3-cone drill at the Combine, but disappointed a bit with a 4.66 second, 40-yard dash. Minnesota general manager Rick Spielman said he clocked 4.47 seconds in the 40 at his Pro Day.
The productive final two seasons combined with the freakish athleticism put him on the Vikings’ radar. He was seen as one of the best edge rushers in the draft, and Minnesota felt he was only behind South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was drafted No. 1 overall.
The Vikings traded back one spot into the No. 9 position, but didn’t feel comfortable dropping any further and selected Barr with the first of two first-round picks.
"A couple of years ago, I could never envision myself standing here talking in front of you guys," Barr said last week when he was introduced in Minnesota. "It’s been a pretty incredible journey. A lot of work, a lot of dedication has gone into that. I really think my coaches at UCLA and my teammates helped me along the way and I’m just very happy to be here."
The Vikings weren’t passing up on the chance to add his abilities to their ever-changing defense and believe another defensive coach, Mike Zimmer, can continue to mold Barr’s talents.
"I love taking guys with talent and coaching that because those kind of guys, you can take them a lot further," Zimmer said. "But he is still learning a lot of different things and we will be able to teach him a lot. With all of these players we try to have a vision when we pick them of what we are looking for and how we can use them in different ways and how we can use them to our advantage to put stress on the offense and he was one of the more unique guys we had in the draft here."
The athleticism was always there. Barr just needed a chance to show it.
Barr went to UCLA as an All-State running back from California. He chose the Bruins over Notre Dame where his father, Tony Brooks, and uncle, Reggie Brooks, both played running back and made their way to the NFL. Being a running back followed the family tradition.
But Barr’s gamble paid off. As much as his production would make it seem, it wasn’t an easy transition. Barr said he hadn’t played linebacker since he was a freshman in high school.
"It was pretty much a brand new position to me," Barr said.
It didn’t show on the field as he became an immediate starter and one of the best pass rushers in the Pac 12-Conference. He was a two-time All-Pac 12 player and named All-American second-team as a junior and first-team as a senior, while also finishing as a finalist for the Butkus, Lombardi and Bednarik awards.
"It took a little bit of time," Barr said. "It definitely wasn’t something I picked up like riding a bike or anything. It took a lot of work and did a lot of film study. I know I worked my tail off that offseason. I attribute a lot of my success to my coaches at UCLA and my teammates for trusting me and kind of helping me through the learning curve, the learning process. Some of it required a lot of hard work and I’m just very happy."
The work isn’t done. Because of his relative inexperience, some projection is needed from the Vikings’ perspective. They see Barr fitting in as a strongside linebacker who can rush the passer. But they also believe he will be able to stand up in coverage.
Zimmer doesn’t see Barr’s inexperience as a detriment. Zimmer sees the possibilities in Barr’s development with continued coaching.
"When you think about it, the guy has played two years on defense and has done the things that he has done and has the athletic ability that he has and he’s like a fawn," Zimmer said. "He’s just learning some of these things. It’s not that he is so raw that he is not a good football player, because he is a really good football player. I don’t want anybody to think that because he is inexperienced that he is not a good football player. He will be good. I’m excited about the chance to take him and mold him into what I really envision him to be which I think will be good."
All because Barr envisioned himself as a linebacker instead of a running back.