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Anthony Barr's decision to come back to UCLA should pay big returns

The Bruins linebacker might have left for the NFL after a breakout 2012 season. But he continued to progress in his senior season and now is expected to be a top-10 draft pick.

December 26, 2013|By Chris Foster
  • UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr prepares for action against Stanford earlier this season.
UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr prepares for action against Stanford earlier… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr knows all too well how one decision can affect a football life. There may still be a Matt Barkley-shaped indentation in the Rose Bowl turf to remind him.

Barr slammed the USC quarterback to the ground last season, separating his shoulder. Barkley, many believed, would have been a first-round pick had he declared for the NFL draft after his junior season a year earlier. But he returned to USC and wound up being part of Barr's NFL application.

It was something Barr recalled, and eventually dismissed, when faced with the same should-I-stay-or-should-I-go moment last December.

"I thought about injury, but you can't play scared," Barr said. "If I came back, I had to alleviate that from my mind."

Barr is now following a path that has gone beyond where Barkley's detoured.

Last season, Barr moved to linebacker from Y-back with authority. By season's end, NFL teams were eager to have him. He was considered a potential second-round pick. He gambled on another year at UCLA.

"I wasn't sure how it was going to work out," Barr said. "I hoped for the best."

Barr followed a breakout year with another career-building season, adding consensus All-American to his resume.

The payoff?

"He gained millions of dollars by coming back," Coach Jim Mora said.

Barkley waited and it cost him money. He had slipped to the fourth round when the Philadelphia Eagles picked him last April.

Barr waited and increased his value. Now he is expected to be a top-10 pick.

"There are some holes in him, you have some concerns, but from an athletic standpoint he's off the charts," an NFL team scout said.

The scout, who was not authorized to speak publicly about players, said Barr, 6 feet 5 and 250 pounds, is "someone NFL teams will want to work with. He will wow you at the combine."

He'll jump up in tax brackets too.

Alabama guard Chance Warmack was taken 10th overall last spring and signed a four-year contract, worth about $12.2 million, with the Tennessee Titans. It included a $7.2-million signing bonus.

Florida International safety Johnathan Cyprien was the first player taken in the second round and signed a four-year contract, worth about $5.5 million, with the Jacksonville Jaguars, getting a $2.4-million bonus with it.

The lure of being able to take care of his mother and brother "was enticing" to Barr a year ago. But he said, "When I sat down and weighed the pros and cons, there was only one decision."

Barr took out an insurance policy — "a big one," he said — and returned to UCLA.

"I think he gained a tremendous amount of respect from his teammates and people all over the country," Mora said.

Barr cemented his reputation as an impact player. His stats were smaller — he went from 13.5 sacks to 10.0 — but his overall play was bigger.

"He showed people last season wasn't a fluke," Mora said.

Barr had been a lost player his first two seasons at UCLA, where he did more blocking than anything as a Y-back. He had come to Westwood with big NFL dreams. By the end of his sophomore season, he said, "I really didn't want to play the game anymore."

Moving to linebacker turned him into a football fanatic.

Barr disrupted things so much during UCLA's first 11-on-11 scrimmage in the 2012 training camp that coaches had to pull him so the offense could get some work done.

The season played out the same way. Barr dominated, finishing with the second-most sacks in the nation. The whirlwind was such that Barr acknowledged having "one foot out the door" when it came time to decide whether to declare for the NFL.

He slowly stepped back.

"It wasn't like there was one moment where I woke up and said, 'I'm staying,'" Barr said. "It was a gradual process. At one point I thought, 'Wow, I can actually go play in the NFL.' But I wanted another season with my teammates."

He also realized he needed to be a more rounded linebacker.

Barr has navigated treacherous turf this season. Every snap could affect his NFL career. But there was reward with the risk.

"He learned how to read blocks and see things," the NFL team scout said. "Offenses focused on him a little bit more. He was no surprise this year, so they schemed for him. That actually made him a better player because he was learning how to use his hands and read blocks."

His maturity was clear the first two games. UCLA coaches wanted him to contain the mobile quarterbacks of Nevada and Nebraska. Barr went without a sack but had 11 tackles against Nebraska.

When Barr was turned loose, he spent a great deal of time in other teams' backfields. He had 20 tackles for a loss, ranking him fourth nationally at 1.7 per game.

"He did everything better," UCLA linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said. "He got that experience under his belt that is going to help him at the next level."

Next year the life-changing decision affecting Barr will be made by those on that next level.

"As a pass rusher, he can be elite," the NFL scout said. "That's a premium in the NFL. You can teach him to do some things. You can't teach him to be an athlete or have that type of speed."

chris.foster@latimes.com

Twitter.com/cfosterlatimes

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.

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