LOS ANGELES -- Anthony Barr hadn't played defense since high school, but he is such a natural at linebacker he can dominate the position with one hand tied behind his back.
Well, maybe not exactly tied behind his back ... but Barr made quite an impression in his defensive debut with his left hand wrapped in a clubbed to protect a broken finger. Barr led the team with six solo tackles and had a sack in UCLA's 49-24 victory over Rice and emerged as the defensive star of the game because of the bone-jarring hits he put on Rice players.
"I felt good out there," Barr said. "I expect great things from myself all the time and it had been a while since I had met those expectations. I’m not saying I met them on Thursday -- I still can improve -- but it was a decent start."
Barr had been a player searching for a position ever since his arrival at UCLA. The Bruins recruited him out of Loyola High in Los Angeles as a remarkable athlete, because that's exactly what he is: 6-foot-4, 235 pounds with quickness and speed. But he didn't quite fit in with the Pistol offense UCLA ran the last two seasons.
The coaches put him at F-back, a cross between running back and tight end, and he developed into one of the best blockers on the team. But it seemed like a waste of his talent, as he had only 12 catches for 82 yards during the last two seasons combined.
He dabbled a bit at running back last year, a position he excelled during high school, but his atypical size for the position wasn't a good fit at the college level.
When coach Jim Mora took over the program, the two discussed a move to linebacker. Barr played a little time at linebacker in high school. But he started there in spring and showed some promise, however an injury kept him out for much of the session so it was largely unknown if he'd fit in. Then a dominant summer training camp earned him the starting job, and his highlight-reel performance last week confirmed the move was a good one.
"Considering he hadn’t played the position in a game … I didn’t know what to expect," Mora said. "I just know he’s athletic and he had a good fall camp. Every day, he’s gotten better and better."
Defensive coordinator Lou Spanos said Barr's work ethic on and off the field has helped make it a seamless transition. Barr is a consummate film junkie, Spanos said, dissecting plays and learning something new every session.
"He really pays attention to details," Spanos said. "He loves the game, he studies and he prepares himself."
On the game field, Barr looked exactly like he did on the practice field, which is something Spanos said you don't always see in guys playing a new position.
"He did a nice job of getting off the line and defeating the first blocker," Spanos said. "He has a lot of range on the field to make plays that are away from him. He’s a high-motor guy, and he takes to coaching."
The club on his hand is smaller this week as the broken finger suffered during training camp begins to heal. It's more of a brace now, and Barr said he hoped to play without it on Saturday against Nebraska. Mora wasn't sure of that would be the case, but he is anticipating a day soon he can see Barr play with full strength in both of his hands.
"Once he gets that club off of his hand, I think he can be dynamite," Mora said.
Nebraska heartbreaker: Defensive end Owamagbe Odighizuwa broke the hearts of Nebraska coaches and fans when he picked UCLA over the Cornhuskers after an intense recruiting battle in 2010. Odighizuwa said he and the Cornhuskers have put that in the past.
"I haven’t heard from anybody Nebraska since the recruiting process was over so I think everybody has kind of closed that chapter and moved on," he said.
Odighizuwa, 6-3 and 270 pounds, was a U.S. Army All-American and the No. 2 defensive end in the country in the class of 2010 out of Douglas High in Portland, Ore. He hasn't quite lived up to his recruiting accolades but appears on the verge of a breakout junior season. He came in as a raw freshman and has developed into a key cog in the UCLA defensive line rotation.
"Definitely better now than my first two years," he said. "Understanding of the game, being older, maturing. Things like that have definitely helped me progress as a player."
He said he would treat Saturday just like any other game, other than the fact that he will be facing coach Bo Pellini, a man who sat in his living room and nearly talked him into moving to Lincoln for his college career.
"It was real close," Odighizuwa said. "I built a relationship with the coaching staff, the D-line coach and I was real close to making that decision. But at the end of the day I did what was best for me, and that was UCLA."
Kicking it: What a difference five yards can make. New NCAA kickoff rules stipulate that the ball is placed on the 35 yards line -- five yards further up -- and that touchbacks result in the receiving team getting possession at the 25.
That means kickers now must make a choice: It’s easier to put the ball in the end zone from five yards closer, but do you want to risk giving you opponent the ball at the 25? UCLA kicker Jeff Locke said the Bruins will make that call on a game-by-game basis.
Last week he put all eight of his kickoffs deep into or out the back of the end zone and let Rice have the ball at the 25. That won't always be the case.
"If we feel like we can get down there and stop them before they get to the 25, we’ll kick it high and try to get down there," Locke said. "You always want to have it as a resource to be able to hang it high in a corner or maybe one or two yards deep to make them return it."
The rule was implemented to cut down on the number of injuries on kickoffs, which the NCAA found to be among the most injury-causing plays in the game. But giving teams an extra five yards on touchbacks doesn't seem to sit well with defensive coaches, Locke said.
"A whole lot of teams last week were hanging it high and trying to stop them inside the 25," Locke said. "A lot of defensive coordinators don’t want to give the other team the ball at the 25."