Fully on board for the Vik­ings

Ken­dricks and Barr, a pair of for­mer Bruins, make Min­nesota’s de­fense a force.

Los Angeles Times - - SPORTS - SAM FARMER ON THE NFL

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. — Eric Ken­dricks, mid­dle line­backer for the Min­nesota Vik­ings, didn’t al­ways see him­self di­rect­ing traf­fic for a smoth­er­ing NFC North de­fense.

For a brief pe­riod, he fan­cied him­self more Tony Hawk than A.J. Hawk.

Ken­dricks, a rough-and­tum­ble kid grow­ing up in Fresno, loved foot­ball but dab­bled in skate­board­ing too. That pretty much came to an end dur­ing the sum­mer af­ter his fresh­man year in high school, when he took a mem­o­rable spill af­ter sail­ing off a con­crete stair­case — all cap­tured on video by his buddy.

“I snapped my skate­board and rolled my an­kle,” he re­called. “I think it was a sign that I broke my board. I kind of just let it go.”

The Vik­ings are eter­nally grate­ful. Ken­dricks, a for­mer UCLA stand­out, is a fix­ture in the NFL’s fourthranked de­fense. Al­though

he’s rel­a­tively un­der­sized at 6 feet, 232 pounds, he’s an in­stinc­tive play­maker who led the team in tack­les last sea­son with 126.

In a vic­tory over Bal­ti­more last month, Ken­dricks had four tack­les for loss. He fig­ures to be in the mid­dle of the ac­tion Sun­day when the 6-2 Vik­ings play at Wash­ing­ton and again the fol­low­ing Sun­day when they play host to the Rams.

“I feel like my bal­ance and my cre­ativ­ity play­ing the game are de­rived from skate­board­ing,” said Ken­dricks, who still cruises around on a long board from time to time but doesn’t do tricks. “I feel like I bend a lit­tle bit dif­fer­ently. I might not have that bal­ance if I didn’t skate­board.”

This Vik­ings de­fense, tied with Jack­sonville for fewest touch­downs al­lowed (12), crashes down on quar­ter­backs like a shore break at the Wedge in New­port Beach. Ap­pro­pri­ate, then, that the unit has a dis­tinct South­ern Cal­i­for­nia fla­vor.

Ken­dricks plays along­side for­mer UCLA team­mate An­thony Barr, the start­ing strong­side line­backer. The two are close friends and are so in sync that much of their com­mu­ni­ca­tion is word­less.

“It’s to the point where we don’t even have to say any­thing,” said Barr, des­ig­nated to wear the one in­hel­met ra­dio on de­fense. “It’s just eye con­tact, hand move­ment, or head move­ment and we’ll kind of be on the same page. We’re used to hear­ing each other’s voices, us­ing the same kind of ver­biage, and we just kind of clean up af­ter each other.

“If some­body messes up, the other one’s there to make up for that mis­take.”

Ever­son Grif­fen, a fourth-round pick out of USC in 2010, lines up at right de­fen­sive end for the Vik­ings and is off to a tremen­dous start. He’s third in the league with 10 sacks, push­ing his to­tal to 401⁄2 since be­com­ing a starter in 2014. Only Den­ver All-Pro Von Miller has more sacks dur­ing that span (461⁄2).

Two Bruins and a Tro­jan work­ing in uni­son?

“I don’t like them too much,” said Grif­fen, break­ing into a smile. “Nah, I’m playin’. They’re good guys. I al­most went to UCLA, but I chose USC be­cause of Pete Car­roll . … But the UCLA guys, they’re great. We have a great chem­istry on the foot­ball field.”

There are ac­tu­ally four Bruins on the Vik­ings ros­ter — kicker Kai For­bath and long snap­per Kevin McDer­mott — and a good deal of that is due to Ge­orge Pa­ton, as­sis­tant gen­eral man­ager, who played at UCLA and typ­i­cally has mul­ti­ple play­ers from both Los Angeles univer­si­ties on the ros­ter.

“I think Jim Mora’s done a good job of pre­par­ing these guys,” Pa­ton said, when asked specif­i­cally about the UCLA play­ers. “Jim’s been in the pros. His guys are work­ers, good in­tan­gi­bles, good team guys. And we’ve got two of the best ones who have played there in a while.”

Barr and Ken­dricks were gam­bles to some de­gree. Barr be­gan his col­lege ca­reer as a full­back/tight end and switched to de­fense mid­way through his fouryear UCLA ca­reer. The Vik­ings drafted him ninth over­all in 2014, even though he was raw and still learn­ing the po­si­tion.

Ken­dricks went in the sec­ond round a year later. Some teams saw him as too small for the po­si­tion. The Vik­ings put a high value on his in­stincts and tack­ling abil­ity, qual­i­ties that earned him the Butkus Award as col­lege foot­ball’s top line­backer.

Barr had 71⁄2 sacks and forced five fum­bles in his first two sea­sons, dropped off a bit last year, but is back up to speed. He was in the news ear­lier this sea­son for his jar­ring hit on Aaron Rodgers, one that snapped the col­lar­bone of the Green Bay quar­ter­back. What fol­lowed was an an­gry ex­change be­tween the play­ers, with Rodgers say­ing Barr gave him the mid­dle fin­ger as the quar­ter­back was walk­ing off the field, and Barr say­ing Rodgers was shout­ing pro­fan­i­ties at him.

“I don’t care if you Aaron Rodgers or Mr. Rodgers, if you say some­thing like that you’re go­ing to get a re­sponse from me,” Barr wrote on Twit­ter.

That was an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic re­sponse from the typ­i­cally in­tro­spec­tive Barr, but he ex­plained this week that he wasn’t go­ing to back down.

“I just felt a need to de­fend my­self, and that’s what it re­ally came down to,” he said. “At some point, you’ve got to speak up. It wasn’t done ma­li­ciously or any­thing like that. It was just to set the record straight and put it be­hind me.”

As for Ken­dricks, there are pre­cious few play­ers who get be­hind — or past — him. In a 24-16 vic­tory over Bal­ti­more last month, he had four tack­les for loss. He’s one of five NFL play­ers to col­lect that many in a game this sea­son.

“A lot of peo­ple think I’m un­der­sized,” said Ken­dricks, whose older brother, My­chal, is a line­backer for the red-hot Philadel­phia Ea­gles. “But if you un­der­es­ti­mate me, you’re go­ing to get beat.”

Ken­dricks is known for his re­lent­less work ethic. He’s me­thod­i­cal. He doesn’t skip steps.

Learned that the hard way as a skate­boarder.

Adam Bettcher Getty Im­ages

AN­THONY BARR had heated ex­change with Aaron Rodgers af­ter break­ing the quar­ter­back’s col­lar­bone.

Jim Mone As­so­ci­ated Press

ERIC KEN­DRICKS says his bal­ance and cre­ativ­ity on the field come from his skate­board­ing days.

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