UCLA's Eric Kendricks, left, blocks a punt by USC's Kris Albarado. (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)
UCLA defensive end Datone Jones remembers attending a show at a comedy club with teammate Eric Kendricks two years ago. It was hard to be inconspicuous.
Kendricks and his wild jet-black hair — picture the image of a cartoon character who has stuck a finger in a light socket — became an easy target.
"Every comedian picked on him," Jones said. "One guy called him 'High School Musical.' "
Coach Jim Mora rolled his eyes at this, saying, "Did the guy know who Eric was? I mean, you might want to be careful doing that."
Sure, Kendricks is good-natured and an easy mark for a one-liner with that electrical-storm hairdo. But best not to poke the bear, or rather the Bruin, too much.
Kendricks, the product of a football family, hasn't been a barrel of laughs for UCLA opponents. Identifying a better linebacker in the Pac-12 Conference the last month would be difficult.
USC learned that Saturday. Kendricks made 10 tackles, intercepted a pass and forced a fumble. In his spare time, he was rushed onto the field on fourth down and deflected a punt. The Bruins scored 14 points off plays by Kendricks in a 38-28 victory.
"He makes plays all over the field," Mora said.
Kendricks, a sophomore, has recovered three fumbles, returning two for touchdowns. He has one interception. He has blocked two punts. He also leads the Pac-12 with 112 tackles.
The Bruins were dealt a potentially crippling blow when linebacker Patrick Larimore was forced to quit in August because of repeated concussions. Kendricks had big cleats to fill as a leader.
"Patrick left a lot of slack for me to pick up," Kendricks said. "He did everything.
"I had to make the calls, read the offense, all that. I wasn't ready for it at first."
The on-the-job training has gone well.
Kendricks had 17 tackles against Arizona State on Oct. 27, the start of a four-game span in which he has made 55 tackles.
"He's an instinctive guy who can now play instinctively because he understands what to do now," Mora said.
Nothing showed that better than the deflected punt against USC. Anthony Barr stumbled to the sideline and Kendricks, his backup on the punt return team, rushed onto the field. He got his hands on the kick, giving the Bruins a first down at the USC 33 in the third quarter. It led to a touchdown that gave UCLA a 31-20 lead.
Kendricks set up UCLA's second touchdown by stripping receiver Marqise Lee of the football in the first quarter.
"He's just a monster," Jones said.
It's a family thing.
Eric and Mychal Kendricks are 17 months apart and very much alike. Mychal Kendricks played four seasons at California and is a linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles.
"We fought a lot," Eric Kendricks said. "We were competitive on everything. We'd make up games and then compete, like racing to the kitchen for dinner."
More often than not, Eric Kendricks would lose.
"But that didn't stop me from racing again," he said. "I think that's why we were ready to play football. We were already used to the competition."
Instead of following his brother to Cal, Eric chose his father's school. Marvin Kendricks, a running back, was UCLA's leading rusher in 1970 and 1971.
"We had this big, giant towel that was blue, gold and white and had a Bruin bear in the middle of it," Eric Kendricks said. "As a kid, I'd wrap myself in it after swimming. I wanted to go to this school."
A routine elementary school assignment — what will you do in the future? — became prophetic. He answered the question about college with, "I'm going to get a football scholarship to UCLA."
Said Kendricks: "I grew up hearing about Bruins pride. California was the right spot for Mychal. This was my dream school."
The two brothers played against each other once. UCLA beat California last season.
"We don't ever talk about it," Eric Kendricks sad. "But it was sweet."