LOS ANGELES -- Anthony Barr came to UCLA with hopes of carrying the football. But when Jim Mora was hired, Barr was asked to give up those hopes and become a linebacker. You'd think that somewhere in the back of his mind he must be longing to carry the ball again -- at least a few more times. Suppose the coaching staff asked him to switch sides again and compete for the job vacated by Johnathan Franklin. Surely, he'd jump at that chance. Wouldn't he?
"Nope. It's too late for that. I'm a fully-committed, defensive-minded player," Barr said, soft-spoken but with a smile. "It was tough. When you've got the ball in your hands, people notice you. I think that's what guys get attached to. The limelight. The ego. You have to put that aside and do what's best for the team."
It's official. Barr's all in.
He said his goals for 2013 are pretty basic. "Get better at everything." Simple. To the point. Pretty universal.
No mention of being first-team all-conference (again). Not a word about Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year -- which figures to be hotly contested between him and last year's winner, Will Sutton of Arizona State. And certainly not a peep about being a Heisman defensive darkhorse. Heisman talk, he said, is reserved for quarterback Brett Hundley.
But whether or not he chooses to recognize it, he is in the limelight -- more than he ever would have been had he stayed on offense.
"He's not exactly a secret," said UCLA defensive coordinator Lou Spanos. "He has to understand that every game we play, the first look is going to be where he's lining up. Everyone knows about him. Each game, he's going to have to be at his best."
When you lead the Pac-12 in sacks, people are going to know your name. In 2012, Barr posted a league-best 13.5 sacks and was second in tackles for a loss with 21.5. He was second on the Bruins with 83 tackles (a very distant second behind Pac-12 tackle king Eric Kendricks' 149). He also defended five passes, forced four fumbles, blocked a kick and tallied a safety.
"He's a complete player," Spanos said. "He can do it all."
Hard to believe that Barr has only been practicing as a linebacker for all of eight months. The switch was made before last spring, but an injury kept him out of spring ball so he didn't even start working his technique until the middle of fall camp. Coming off of a 2011 season where he carried all of nine times as a hybrid fullback/running back for 25 yards and a touchdown, the move to defense was going to take some getting used to.
"You have to play angry," he said. "You have to be more physical and aggressive. A lot of it was good coaching. They got me ready to play in a hurry."
Despite being ranked No. 10 at the time on Mel Kiper's Big Board, Barr announced on New Year's Eve that he would return to UCLA for another year -- much to the delight of his coaches and teammates. But Mora -- who probably knows the NFL better than any current college football coach -- believes it was the right call.
"He wasn't ready to go out yet," Mora said. "Obviously I'm glad he didn't go. But I think with another year, the potential is there for him to be a high, high first-round draft pick."
And as the Bruins prepare to break spring camp, Mora has even started cranking up the Heisman talk -- even if Barr won't.
However, Barr said that staying really wasn't that tough of a decision.
"I love my teammates and I love this coaching staff and I love this university," he said. "I felt like I owed it to them."
With a year of seasoning and working out as a linebacker, he's upped his weight about 10 pounds while retaining his explosive first step that gave so many offensive linemen fits last year. He's emphasized his pass coverage and believes that with another year in the 3-4 defense, the Bruins will be even better than last year -- when they were eighth nationally in sacks and 22nd in tackles for a loss. And though he'll be drawing much more attention in 2013, the coaches are confident he's poised for another oustanding season.
"He's a tremendous student and he wants to be great," Spanos said. "That's his goal. And our goal is to make him the best player he can be. He takes everything we ask and does extra. You can't say enough great things about Anthony. Really looking forward to seeing what he can do this year."