Anthony Barr is more than UCLA’s poster boy

UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr is looking to build upon his breakout 2012 season.
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Headline writers can cease and desist. Reporters should dial it down a notch. Cliche-leaning bloggers need to give this a rest.

Barr none, Barr code, raising the Barr ...

UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr has heard them all. Pun is fun, folks, but move on.

“You hear that stuff and you think, ‘How did we get to this point, where people are using my name for jokes?’” Barr said. “Most of them are pretty corny and cheesy.”

He has no one to blame for that diet but himself.

Barr showed from the start last season that the move to outside linebacker qualified as an epiphany. He overwhelmed the UCLA offense in the first-team drill during training camp. He continued to maul offenses throughout the 2012 season.

People noticed. Barr is on nearly everyone’s preseason All-American list. UCLA has made his face front and center in its marketing effort and is mulling plans for a Heisman Trophy campaign. It’s a coming-out party that has even affected Barr. He is a polite, well-spoken senior, far from the shy kid who mumbled and had trouble looking reporters in the eye as a freshman.


“That’s self-confidence,” Barr said. “The reassurance that I’m successful.”

The numbers say so, including his 13.5 sacks in 2012. One of those sacks underscored his, and UCLA’s, turnaround season.

Barr crashed untouched and left a divot in the shape of USC quarterback Matt Barkley on the Rose Bowl turf last November. It was the exclamation point to a 38-28 victory and raised NFL scouts’ expectations.

One team scout said, “He can track ballcarriers down from behind, creates havoc in the passing game. He’s a pretty tough kid.”

The scout — who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss players publicly — said Barr still had to refine his game, but it was clear “he’s a top-five, top-10 pick just based on athletic ability. … It blows my mind that he would not have been on the defensive side of the ball rushing the quarterback prior to last year.”

The why is a question Barr answers … a lot.

Barr desired playing running back and said that then-UCLA Coach Rick Neuheisel promised him the chance.

“Coach Neuheisel sat in my living room and asked, ‘What do you need to do?’” Barr said. “I said I wanted the opportunity to play running back.”

Two years later, Barr said, “I didn’t have a defined role. I was in the game plan as a decoy. I was in the game plan to block. I was to get the ball a couple plays. That never gave me consistency. We all have to have a role.”

In short, Barr said, “I was lost.”

Barr wanted to be a running back but didn’t have the speed for it and, at nearly 6 feet 5, his straight-up running style made him a massive target for defenders.

That size (now 250 pounds) on the other side of the ball made him a massive problem for offensive coordinators.

“Fortunately, I don’t have to worry about him,” UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone said. “Every defense has a guy who can ruin the game. He’s that guy.”

Barr asked for the move immediately after Mora took over the program. At the same time Mora was thinking Barr should be on defense.

That harmonic convergence created chaos for other teams. He had a sack, or a shared sack, in every game and finished with 21.5 tackles for a loss.

None rumbled the ground more than the hit on Barkley, who suffered a separated shoulder on the play.

Barr seemed to call out USC tackle Aundrey Walker at Pac-12 media day, saying, “He should be up here talking to you guys because he’s the reason why I was able to make the play.” Barr added to that recently, saying, “When you watch the tape, I actually hesitate for a half-second because I was so shocked that there was no one there.”

And Barr has seen the tape … a lot.

The video still arrives in emails from friends and fans. The moment is waved like a flag by fans, especially those who have a bull-like reaction to the color red. It was their poster play for the season.

Barr said there is too much emphasis on that one play, but, he added, “I don’t have any problem with that.”

That is part of the emergence, from wouldn’t-say-boo freshman to strong-willed senior. The personality shift was seen in practice last week, as Barr jawed with Mora about penalties being called on the defense.

That personal growth allowed Barr to step back from the NFL precipice.

After a 49-26 loss to Baylor in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, Barr said, “I was ready for a new chapter.”

He filled out paperwork to see where he would be drafted.

“They said it would be in the second round,” Barr said.

That was a little conservative. The NFL team scout said, “His upside is so high, there a lot of teams that would have taken a shot on him. There are some unknowns, but he’s a special player.”

Barr has returned to UCLA to clear up the unknowns.

“He has got to learn to use his hands better and shed, but he doesn’t back down,” the NFL scout said. “He’s not timid. He’s not a finesse player. Needs to get better at playing the play-side run, but he’s shown the willingness to do that, which is remarkable for a guy really playing his first year on defense.”

Barr was savvy and mature enough to know that “in the NFL, you don’t have people who will refine you.”

Another year of college was worth his while.

“I don’t know if we can identify where his ceiling is,” Mora said.

So if the sky is the limit, is the Heisman within reach?

A defense-only player has never won the trophy. Barr, in a twist, will get to play running back this season, in short yardage and goal-line situations.

That just might help him, uh, clear the Barr.

Barr rolled his eyes, chuckled, and said, “Everyone has their catchphrases.”

Twitter: @cfosterlatimes

Times staff writer Sam Farmer contributed to this report.