Anthony Barr's switch to LB began as a joke, but no one's laughing now
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MANKATO, Minn. -- Anthony Barr joked about the switch at first, jawing with then-UCLA linebackers coach Clark Lea about the F-back jumping in on defensive meetings.
It was after the departure of Lea and the coaching staff that had recruited him when Barr separated himself from his family bloodline of ball carriers and began his path to becoming a top-10 pick in the NFL Draft just two years later.
"During that time, I was just messing around," Barr said. "Never really in my heart did I want to switch until after my sophomore season. I said, 'Wow, I really need to change something to make a difference.'"
Barr hadn't lined up as a linebacker since his freshman year of high school in 2006, when he was just 14 years old. He eventually played safety at Los Angeles Loyola High, but found his stride at running back -- rushing for 1,890 yards and scoring 20 touchdowns as a junior.
Barr and his mother, Lori, wanted him to play running back when then-UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel came knocking to recruit the 6-foot-5 prospect. Barr's father, Tony, and uncle, Reggie, both rushed for Notre Dame in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
But in two seasons in the backfield, Barr didn't see many attempts. When he did, he found it difficult to maintain the low center of gravity needed to absorb hits as he carried the ball just 15 times for 54 yards.
"Just needed a change, really," Barr said. "I wasn't contributing much on offense and I felt like I needed to change it."
Vikings guard Jeff Baca blocked for -- and against -- Barr during their three years as teammates at UCLA.
The Vikings drafted Baca in the sixth round (196th overall) after his senior season in 2012, the same season in which Barr, then a junior, ended USC quarterback Matt Barkley's college career with a broken collarbone with one of his 13.5 sacks that year.
"You don't see many 6'5" running backs," Baca said. "But you put him on the other side of the ball and the guy is an animal. It was a natural switch."
UCLA coach Jim Mora agreed when he took over the Bruins after the 2011 season. In line with Mora's opinion, Barr decided to jump the line of scrimmage in UCLA's new 3-4 defensive scheme -- the one that helped him rack up 23.5 sacks in two seasons rushing off the edge.
"All things considered, it wasn't easy," Barr said. "Definitely a learning curve; had to change my mentality from offense a little bit. It was humbling. But it was something I wanted to do, so it made it easier for me."
Barr felt the learning curve, but his teammates saw an immediate improvement in his impact. During his first game at linebacker on Aug. 30, 2012, in a game at Rice, Barr tallied a team-high six solo tackles and one sack.
"Right away you can tell his speed was just second to none," Baca said. "Off the edge as an outside linebacker, I know he had to be one of the fastest guys on our team. He made some plays my senior season, chasing down some running backs, that were unbelievable."
In the NFL classroom and on the field, Barr will need the same type of acceleration he displayed in college in order to have a similar impact at the next level. Barr has practiced about 10 times with the Vikings since being drafted as he missed most of June's workouts to finish his degree in California.
Linebackers coach Adam Zimmer admitted that Barr's lack of experience at the position might hinder him early, but added "the sky is the limit for him because of his physical attributes."
Barr's jump to the NFL comes with the added test of learning a new defensive scheme as an outside linebacker in a 4-3 front.
So far, he's worked with the second-team defense behind Audie Cole at strong-side linebacker, but the Vikings coaching staff is also exploring ways to get him involved as a situational pass rusher.
"We really like what we saw from him rushing in college," defensive coordinator George Edwards said. "We like the possibility of getting him in some matchups, in some rush situations. From that aspect of it, yes we are excited about him having that unique skill set at the position. Because now all of a sudden you get to rush him against some of the things people are doing protection-wise."
As the Vikings' first preseason game approaches on Aug. 8, all eyes will be on the team's first overall draft pick.
"My expectations of him are probably higher than they are for anybody else," coach Mike Zimmer said. "There was a play [Sunday] that he got a lead block on and knocked the living dog out of the guy that came to block him."