No college football coach in my memory has had two great linebackers drafted by the same NFL team in back-to-back seasons, with one being a first-round pick and the other a second-round pick, other than UCLA’s Jim L. Mora.
Mora — the son of Jim E. Mora, a tremendous NFL coach in his own right with the Saints and Colts — coached Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks at UCLA before they were selected by the Vikings, Barr in 2014 and Kendricks this year.
In comparing the two, Mora said that even though they both play linebacker, their unique skill sets make them an effective combination on the field.
“They are very similar in terms of they’re both very high-character, very motivated, team-oriented, hard-working young men that want to be the best they can be and care desperately about their success and their team’s success,” Mora said. “They’re different as players, they play different positions. Anthony is more of a pass-rushing outside linebacker, long and lean. Eric is a quick-twitch tackling machine on the inside, more a weak inside linebacker. I think they complement each other very, very well.”
Barr and Kendricks last played together at UCLA in 2013, when Barr was a senior and Kendricks was a junior. Kendricks, a co-captain, led the team with 106 tackles, had two sacks and one interception. Barr was an All-America who registered 65 tackles (20 for a loss), 10 sacks, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries.
“They can both be on the field just like they were at UCLA because they play different positions and they play them very well,” Mora said. “Anthony is probably a little better out in space, you know, dropping in the long distances, where Eric is probably a little bit better dropping to the inside zones. Anthony is probably a little bit better pass rusher and Eric is a little bit better in man-to-man coverage on the back.”
When Mora was asked for the biggest accomplishment of the two men, he pointed out they both were awarded the prestigious Lott IMPACT Trophy, which honors college football’s defensive player who showcased the best character and individual performance, in back-to-back seasons.
Mora said Barr and Kendricks have natural athletic talent. Barr switched from offense to defense during his career with the Bruins; Kendricks also was a highly recruited basketball player.
“[Barr] was playing kind of a tight end position more than running back, and he wasn’t being utilized as much as we thought we could utilize him on defense,” Mora said. “So we were running a 3-4 defense and he had the body type that I thought fit perfectly for that outside linebacker position. He wanted to move and we wanted to move him, so it worked out very well.
“[Kendricks] is a very versatile athlete. He’s one of those guys that can just pick up any ball, whether it’s a football or a basketball or a baseball or a soccer ball or a golf ball, and just kind of understand how the game is supposed to work. He’s a gym rat. He just loves to be in the gym playing ball.”
Mora said it might depend on the Vikings’ depth at linebacker, but he believes Kendricks could get immediate playing time the way Barr did last season. He also recalled two of Kendricks’ biggest plays were game-changers in victories over archrival USC.
“He had two tremendous plays against USC,” Mora said. “One, his sophomore year, he went and blocked a punt. [In 2014], his senior year, he made a spectacular interception on the sideline. Both of those plays were made at pivotal moments in the game that helped us win those games.”
Mora was able to get both players to finish their four-year careers at UCLA, though he said the circumstances surrounding each player were a little different.
“I had to talk Anthony into coming back,” he said. “Eric, I don’t think he ever really considered [declaring for the NFL draft] early. But Anthony, I think he realized the best thing for him was to come back another year. He’s a special kid. I will tell you what, they are both amazing kids.”
Mora has posted back-to-back 10-3 seasons at UCLA and won the Sun Bowl (42-12 over Virginia Tech) in 2013 and the Alamo Bowl (40-35 over Kansas State) last season. He is 29-11 overall in his three years with the Bruins and has had eight players drafted over the past two seasons. Mora believes the Vikings made good selections in these two star linebackers, and got them at just the right spot.
“Neither of them surprised me at all, I thought they were both picked exactly where they should be,” Mora said. “They don’t miss a lot of tackles, and they play with great energy and effort so they get to a lot of tackles. They do not give up on plays. They play hard and they are sure tacklers.”
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