Perhaps no college is better represented in Minnesota professional sports than UCLA, which has produced some of the best young stars on local squads this season.
There’s no question that Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman loves to draft teammates into the pros.
He selected safeties Robert Blanton and Harrison Smith out of Notre Dame. Tackle Matt Kalil and tight end Rhett Ellison played together at USC. But no team is better represented on the Vikings than UCLA.
The Vikings drafted linebackers Anthony Barr and Eric Kendricks, who played together for three seasons at UCLA. Barr, a first-round pick in 2014, is back in the lineup after missing three games because of hand and groin injuries and is one of the best young defensive players in the NFL with 62 tackles, 2½ sacks, and three forced fumbles this season.
Kendricks is perhaps a bit more surprising as a second-round pick in 2015. He quickly became a starter and has a team-leading 83 tackles and four sacks.
Other UCLA players Spielman has obtained are punter Jeff Locke (2013, fifth round) long-snapper Kevin McDermott (2015 free agent) and offensive lineman Mike Harris, a fourth-year free agent in his second season with the Vikings who has started all 15 games.
Flip saw promise
Former Wolves president and coach Flip Saunders really liked both Shabazz Muhammad and Zach LaVine, two UCLA players he selected in back-to-back drafts.
Muhammad, a first-round draft choice in 2013, was known as an instant-offense-type player. LaVine, taken in the first round in 2014, was considered a high-risk selection because he didn’t even start during his lone college season.
But Saunders believed LaVine had the athleticism to be an All-Star, and his stats have improved across the board in his second season. He is averaging 24.8 minutes this season, compared to 24.7 minutes last year. He’s scoring 14.6 points compared to 10.1, grabbing 3.2 rebounds compared to 2.8, and his shooting percentage is up to 43.2 from 42.2.
A lot of fans didn’t like the LaVine pick, but Saunders once told a story that on the morning of the draft, he wrote down LaVine’s name on a piece of paper, hoping the UCLA freshman would still be there with the No. 15 pick. Now he looks like he’ll be a Wolves star for some time.
Muhammad has played fewer minutes this season than last, going from 22.8 to 17.2, but he’s remained a steady scorer. He’s averaging 8.1 points on 47.7 percent shooting after averaging 13.5 on 48.9 percent shooting last season.
Still, Muhammad is a key piece of the Wolves roster, and that’s what Saunders was thinking when he grabbed the Bruins small forward.
“I’m sure it’s blown up and I’m sure it’s not real good,” he said about the fans’ reaction after the 2013 draft. “Hey, that’s why you’re in this position. You have to own up to the picks you make. … I know people probably aren’t happy. We’ve got to fill a roster and there are a lot of ways to fill it.”
Now two of the Wolves’ most important players are Muhammad and LaVine, both former Bruins.
Decker’s playoff push
As the New York Jets have rallied for five consecutive victories — including a thrilling 26-20 victory over the Patriots on Sunday — perhaps no player has been as important as former Gophers wide receiver Eric Decker, who has four TDs over those five games and caught the game-winning score against New England in overtime. Decker, in his sixth year, has 75 receptions for 977 yards this season. His 11 touchdown are tied for sixth most in the league.
Meanwhile, if you watched the Gophers’ 21-14 Quick Lane Bowl victory over Central Michigan on Tuesday, you might have seen Decker’s good college buddy, Adam Weber, talking to quarterback Mitch Leidner on the sidelines after every possession. Weber has made a great impression on the Gophers coaching staff this season.
• Patriots coach Bill Belichick took a lot of heat for deciding to kick off in overtime against the Jets instead of taking the ball. Vikings fans might remember coach Mike Zimmer making a similar decision earlier this year against St. Louis — except his defense made the Rams go three-and-out and the offense quickly got in position for Blair Walsh’s game-winning 40-yard field goal and a 21-18 victory.
• Walsh, comparing this season to his 2012 rookie year, when the Vikings last made the playoffs: “We didn’t have a chance to win the division my rookie year, so there’s a difference there. Any time you’re playing for a division title, that’s so huge. Especially in the division with a good quality team like Green Bay. Bottom line, we want to be NFC North champs just as much as we want to make the playoffs.”
• Zimmer on if the defensive performance Sunday in the victory over the Giants was their best: “Yeah, each week is different. We have a chance to be a good defensive group if we continue to play. [Defensive end] Brian Robison the last four weeks or so has been playing really well, I think, so that’s helped quite a bit.
“And getting these three guys back. Harrison is a good football player, he’s instinctive, quick-thinking, active, so getting him back is big. But when Barr gets in there, he’s a guy that they have to account for as well. I think [nose tackle] Linval [Joseph] started out a bit rusty, but he started playing a lot better as the game went on.
“So there’s obviously a lot of things that we have to clean up that we didn’t do near good enough that we can.”
• Vikings running back Adrian Peterson on teammate and safety Harrison Smith, after Smith came back from a hamstring/knee injury and returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown against the Giants on Sunday: “I take my hat off to him. … To come out in his first game back with a pick-six, he’s a warrior. He’s a guy that if I’m starting a team, he’s my first pick. He’s the ultimate competitor and he’s a great talent.”
• Linebacker Chad Greenway, who might be playing in his final regular-season game, said his thoughts going into Green Bay to play for the NFC North title are similar to when the Vikings played them at TCF Bank Stadium earlier this season. “We just made too many mistakes and played uncharacteristically. It’s going to be more about focusing on our jobs and doing what we have to do. Obviously, we know we have to keep [Packers quarterback] Aaron [Rodgers] contained and we can’t let him get out of the pocket. That’s when he made all of his plays against us last time.”
Sid Hartman can be heard weekdays on 830-AM at 7:40 and 8:40 a.m. and on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. email@example.com