Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, college roommates at UCLA and now every-down linebackers for the Vikings, are sitting in the sun outside of Winter Park and are, at a reporter’s request, trying to reach a consensus on which one is better looking.
“Me,” Kendricks, his long, black hair tamed in a ponytail, answers without hesitation.
Barr, his long frame slouched on a bench next to Kendricks, is more contemplative, bellowing a loud “Aaaaaaaaaaaagh!” sound that rises up out of his belly. “Most handsome?”
The duo asks for input from a couple of Vikings teammates who are walking off the field after Thursday’s practice, but they will have to sort this one out themselves.
“I feel like it’s just pick your poison,” Kendricks finally says. “He’s tall. And I have the hair.”
“He’s got the flow,” Barr replies, and Kendricks laughs, perhaps at himself again.
At that moment, Barr and Kendricks were just two California kids lounging on a bench, casually discussing with little debate which one was smarter, more outgoing, messier in their college apartment.
Sunday, they will line up next to each other at Ford Field and race each other to the rib cage of Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Both figured they would land in the NFL after starring at UCLA, Barr as a dangerous pass rusher and Kendricks as the leading tackler in school history. Only in their wildest daydreams, though, did they think they would be reunited in the pros, giving coach Mike Zimmer the versatile linebackers he needs to run his attacking scheme.
“It really caught me by surprise,” Barr said of the Vikings drafting Kendricks this past spring. “It was just so surreal. It was something we had talked about before.”
“But we never expected it to actually happen,” Kendricks said, finishing his sentence.
A Disneyland meeting
Barr and Kendricks first met in the spring of 2010, when they were seniors in high school. They attended an annual event in California where area high school grads take a big group trip to Disneyland. A handful of football standouts who had signed with UCLA briefly met up there. The two “kicked it for a minute,” according to Kendricks.
Barr was a four-star recruit from Los Angeles who joined the Bruins because they promised he would remain at running back despite being 6-4 and 230 pounds.
Kendricks was a lightly recruited former high school quarterback from Fresno. His “dream school” was UCLA because his dad, Marvin, played running back there during the ’70s.
They first made a connection as freshmen because they were in many of the same classes.
“A lot of the guys tested into lower classes so me and him, being as intelligent as we are, we had the same schedule,” Kendricks said, grinning at his joke.
“We had to wake up to work out and had to go to the same classes and had to be at practice the same time together,” Barr added. “So we were always together.”
They became fast friends, in part because of their complementary personalities. Kendricks is a ball of energy and quick to laugh, including at himself. Barr is the more introverted of the two, and while he has a sneaky sense of humor, his face is often expressionless.
“I’m almost too laid back sometimes,” Barr said.
“I’m way too uptight sometimes,” Kendricks said.
“He can be super high-strung and anxious and aggressive. And I might just be like, ‘It’s all good,’ ” Barr said. “I’m too chill, so it’s good to have somebody who is more so on the other side [of the spectrum] to cancel out my lack of urgency at times.”
In their third year on campus, they became roommates. Barr was the messy one.
“There were clothes everywhere,” Kendricks said. “You have a lot of clothes.”
“I need to get a cleaning lady,” Barr said. “I’m not good at that stuff. My mom spoiled me.”
Standouts at UCLA
In his first two years, Barr played a hybrid running back/tight end role in UCLA’s pistol offense. He didn’t get to carry the football very often in games. But when he did get it in practice, Kendricks said the big lug wasn’t easy to bring down.
“It was more like we hoped they were passing it to him because he caught the ball a lot, too,” said Kendricks, who is 6 feet tall. “But it was not fun. I went low obviously.”
“I didn’t even touch the ball in college, to be honest with you,” Barr said, brooding.
When Jim Mora Jr. replaced Rick Neuheisel as Bruins coach, one of his first moves was converting Barr, a former high school safety, to a pass-rushing outside linebacker in his 3-4 defense. During his two seasons on defense, Barr racked up 23.5 sacks, forced nine fumbles and made 148 tackles, including 41.5 for a loss.
Kendricks, meanwhile, redshirted his first year on campus before settling in at inside linebacker. He was a three-year starter and got in the UCLA record book with 481 career tackles. In 2014, he won the Butkus Award, handed out to the best linebacker in college football. He also won the Lott Trophy, given to college football’s best defensive player in character and performance, a year after Barr earned the honor.
When Barr and Kendricks were on the field together, the Bruins went from 92nd in scoring defense in 2011 to tied for 58th in 2012 then 35th in 2013, Barr’s final year on campus.
“They could look at each other and they knew what they were thinking or what they would say,” UCLA defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Angus McClure said. “They’re tight. They’re close friends. And they play like it. They play for each other.”
Vikings on the line
Barr was the first draft pick of the Zimmer era. The Vikings selected him ninth overall in 2014 even though many analysts pegged him as a 3-4 pass rusher. Playing a Swiss Army knife role in Zimmer’s defense, Barr made enough big plays to garner NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year hype before a knee injury ended his season after 12 games.
A year later, Zimmer and the Vikings were again looking for help at linebacker. After taking cornerback Trae Waynes in the first round, Kendricks was atop their board when they were back on the clock at the 45th overall pick on the first night in May.
Barr was at an event with season-ticket holders at U.S. Bank Stadium when his phone buzzed. It was Adam Zimmer, Mike’s son and the Vikings linebackers coach. The Vikings had just drafted Kendricks, Zimmer’s text message read.
“He [texted back], ‘Are you … kidding me?’ ” Zimmer said. “There was another word in there [too].”
Kendricks was with family and friends in California when General Manager Rick Spielman gave him the call. Two minutes later, Barr’s number popped up on his phone.
“I was like, ‘Everybody be quiet! It’s Anthony!’ ” Kendricks said. “And I answered the phone call, and he was just like, ‘Woooooooooo!’ And I was like ‘Wooooo!’ ”
“I was at the new stadium with a whole bunch of season-ticket holders,” Barr said. “And they were all like, ‘What’s going on? What’s wrong with him?’ ”
“There were literally zero words said. Just screaming. And then we hung up,” Kendricks said.
“That’s something we’re going to remember for a while,” Barr said.
Making an impact
The Vikings didn’t draft Kendricks just because he was tight with Barr. But they have found that Kendrick’s presence has helped Barr get out of his shell a little bit. And Barr being around has aided Kendrick’s transition to the NFL.
“When we first got them, it seemed like they were kind of ‘The Odd Couple,’ ” Adam Zimmer said. “Anthony was always real quiet and didn’t joke around a lot. He’s opened up a little bit more lately. And Eric is just the Energizer Bunny. He’s always talking, asking questions. … So I guess they feed off of each other that way.”
They aren’t roomies in Minneapolis, but they do live a floor apart in the same apartment complex downtown. They kick it by playing the “FIFA” soccer video game and checking out restaurants together in the area.
Their connection, on the field and off, already is paying off for the Vikings. Kendricks played well enough in his first four NFL games to make the Vikings feel comfortable with trading Week 1 starter Gerald Hodges to the 49ers during the bye week. They installed Kendricks as an every-down player at middle linebacker last week, and he had a team-high 10 tackles and a sack in the 16-10 win over the Chiefs.
Kendricks leads the Vikings with 29 tackles. Barr ranks third with 27 and also has a sack, a forced fumble and an interception, which came against Peyton Manning.
When the Vikings use their nickel personnel, Barr and Kendricks are the linebackers. And with their ability to cover, blitz and defend the run, they give Zimmer a pair of versatile weapons to use, especially in his clever double-A-gap blitzes.
“The athleticism is something we value a lot in our linebackers. Those two obviously have that,” Adam Zimmer said. “They’re also smart guys. We do a lot mentally with our linebackers. You need to have smart, tough guys that can understand what you’re trying to do.”
The close friends and former roommates are two of the biggest reasons why the Vikings defense ranks second in the NFL in points allowed.
And now that they have been teamed up again, Barr and Kendricks hope to build something special together in Minnesota.
“I don’t know how much respect we get around the league still. We have to earn it obviously,” Barr said. “Now we have a chance to do it together and do something special here on defense and as a team, and it’s pretty cool to have one of your best friends on the squad with you and to be able to do it with him.”
Of course, Kendricks agrees, just like they do on pretty much everything.
Well, besides maybe their looks. That one is still up for friendly debate.