Two years ago, the last thing linebacker Anthony Barr was thinking was that he could end up being the ninth pick of the NFL draft. He was playing at running back for UCLA and was frustrated. The team wasn't winning. He wasn't seeing a lot of playing time. In short, he was upset with how his football life was playing out.
But when coach Jim Mora was hired as the new head coach of the Bruins, everything changed for Barr. He wanted to make more of an impact and floated the idea that he would be willing to move to the defensive side of the ball – a decision that would change both the future of the UCLA football program and Barr.
"When Coach Mora got to UCLA, I made a point to introduce myself to him and I actually asked him, ‘What do you think about me playing defense?'" Barr said. "I think he's similar to Coach (Mike) Zimmer – they're both defensive-minded coaches. He agreed to the decision and we kind of ran with it. I didn't really know to expect to come out of it."
It was a bold move. Barr hadn't played linebacker since his freshman year of high school and he knew he would have a learning curve to deal with. He attacked the challenge and it didn't take long for him to use his elite athleticism to make the difficult transition, but it wasn't all that smooth. It required a lot of work and behind-the-scenes effort to make it look easy.
"It took a little bit of time," Barr said. "It definitely wasn't something I just picked up like riding a bike. It took a lot of work. I did a lot of film study. I worked my tail off that offseason. I attribute a lot of that to my coaches at UCLA and my teammates for trusting me and helping me through the learning process."
His production was amazing in his two seasons as a starter. He had 151 tackles, 40.5 tackles for a loss, 23.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles. Getting by on his pure athleticism in his first year at linebacker, he saw the improvement he made last season, as he became much more comfortable at his position and the game slowed down for him. He has always been an elite athlete, but it was more the mental part of the game than the physicality aspect that led to his improvement.
"I think mentally – understanding my assignment and the assignments of those around me," Barr said. "I picked that up the second year. I became more technical as far as pass rushing went. I was able to use my hands better and had a better feel for the game overall."
Barr visited the Vikings in late April and hoped that the visit was seen as a positive by the Vikings. He felt the meeting went well and that he had proved to the Vikings that he was a player who could make a big impact, but he didn't get a clear vibe on how the Vikings felt about him.
"I wasn't sure," Barr said. "I felt like they played their cards pretty close to the chest. I just tried to do my best in the meeting room and explain to them how much I know about the game of football and how much I love it."
Although the plan is to use him at the Sam linebacker in the Vikings defense, it isn't expected to come at the expense of Chad Greenway. Barr acknowledged that he is a fan of Greenway and is looking forward to the opportunity to play alongside of him.
"I'm very familiar with him," Barr said. "I know he's a Pro Bowl linebacker and I'm just very excited to learn from and pick his brain and maybe see what I can learn from him. He's a great player and a leader of the defense. I think it will be awesome to meet him and hopefully absorb as much information from him."
For a player who two years ago wasn't convinced he was going to have an NFL future, Barr saw his dream realized Thursday night. Now he has to set a new group of goals and get ready to take on the challenge of how Zimmer plans to use him.
"I think I can fit into a number of different positions," Barr said. "I think the outside linebacker spot is where they (see) me at. I think I'll be able to come in and make an impact right away."
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Barr suggested a move that paid off
Viking Update Top Stories
Vikings near bottom in cap carryoverWith four teams sporting more than $20 million available to carry over in salary-cap space, the Minnesota Vikings are one of five teams with less than $1 million available in that…
Scout NFL Network10:01 AM
Too many factors in Thielen not getting 1,000Adam Thielen obviously wanted to get to 1,000 yards. But he was only targeted once in the season finale and still took that in stride.
Viking Update7:53 AM
How good is Vikings’ front seven?The analytics site Pro Football Focus has ranked the 2016 defensive front sevens, with the Minnesota Vikings ranking sixth as a unit.
Viking Update4:29 AM
NFL’s important offseason datesFrom all-star games to free agency to the draft to the start of the preseason, the key dates for the NFL offseason.
Viking UpdateYesterday at 11:45 AM