The UCLA Bruins found themselves a bit short on the defensive side of the ball this spring at the linebacker position. They got creative and turned to fullback Anthony Barr to switch sides of the ball and learn linebacker quickly to act as a stopgap. That stopgap has turned into a potential Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
Barr’s transition to defense has been smoother and more successful than anyone could have imagined. Barr leads the Pac 12 with 11 sacks and is tied for the conference lead in tackles for loss with Will Sutton of the Arizona State Sun Devils at 17.
His head coach, Jim Mora, has been one of Barr’s biggest supporters this season. “It’s been something,” Mora told reporters. He went on to call Barr one of the premier defensive players in the conference with the ability to become one of the premier defensive players in the country as he continues to learn and grow in his defensive position.
During spring ball, Barr had to sit out with an injury, so he wasn’t able to participate in drills to start learning the position until fall camp in August. He utilized his time during the spring, though, to bury himself in the playbook, which Barr credits for his quick acclimation to the defensive side of the ball.
When he finally took the field, he was behind the curve as far as technique was concerned, but he was right on track mentally which has helped his progression. Having the mental aspect of the defense and the schemes of the defensive staff already down, Barr could focus all his energy on refining his incredible athleticism for the linebacker position.
Mora can’t praise Barr’s transition enough, saying that it is impossible for a person to learn a new position in three weeks, as Barr was asked to do. He credits the junior’s “tremendous amount” of natural talent to carry him early. As he learns and gains more experience, he’ll truly become a special defensive player.
After just ten games, the improvement is astonishing. In UCLA’s first three games of the season, Barr was able to record a sack. Then in the Bruins’ loss to the Oregon State Beavers, he had a breakout performance with three tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and a forced fumble. He’s recorded at least one sack in eight of 10 games this season and has multiple tackles for loss in five of 10 games. Week to week, he just keeps getting better.
And Barr is just part of the new defensive culture that Mora has brought with him to UCLA. Several players were asked to change positions or alter their roles this season with the new coaching staff coming in. Barr happened to be the most dramatic change, coming over to defense after spending two seasons as a fullback, and he’s also happened to be the most successful.
Anthony Barr’s started with some frustration, being forced to sit out spring practice with an injury while he tried to learn a new position on a new side of the football. He continued to grind away, however, and his team-first attitude has resulted in a special season for him in one of the most successful seasons for UCLA football in the last decade.
So now Barr is in a position to be named the best defender in the conference. Next season, with the way Barr has improved this year, he could be one of the best defensive players in the entire country.