Eric Kendricks was anxious. Kendricks, a star linebacker from UCLA, had been waiting for this day, this game, this moment — all offseason. And when it came, he literally jumped at the opportunity.
The moment was Aug. 30 in the second quarter of the Bruins’ season-opening win against Virginia last season, and UCLA led by 11 with less than 2 minutes left in the half. Virginia was in its own territory and the Virginia quarterback attempted a short third-down throw to his running back, who was running an option route over the middle.
Kendricks, however, had seen this play on film before. And as he saw it all unfold, his instincts just took over.
What happened next was the first of many impressive plays Kendricks would make during a senior season in which he racked up 145 tackles and won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.
“Running backs have a certain amount of options when they come out of the backfield like that,” Kendricks said with a grin at the NFL Combine on Friday when asked about the play. “He pushed forward, and I knew he was going inside-outside. I kind of sunk my hips a little bit, waited for him. As soon as he broke, I kind of just baited him just enough and I got underneath it.”
Kendricks jumped the route, intercepted the pass and sprinted 37 yards, untouched, for a touchdown. It was the signature play of a 17-tackle effort on that day. When asked which game from the past year shows the kind of player some NFL team is about to get, for Kendricks this is the first one that comes to his mind.
“I just came ready to play,” Kendricks said. “I felt like I had the entire offseason, and I was extremely anxious to play. Sometimes the stars align … but I don’t think it was anything that came to chance. I think it was based on my preparation, and I executed.”
Preparation, Kendricks says, is the bedrock of his production. For good teams, middle linebackers have to be among the hardest workers. They’re in the middle of the action, they direct the traffic, and it really helps if they love the game.
If football is their passion, it makes it easier from them to slog through the hours of film necessary to command a defense and take the educated guesses that can allow for game-changing plays.
Kendricks understands and embraces that, just like two of his favorite linebackers, San Francisco’s Patrick Williams and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, both Pro Bowlers.
“If you take (chances like that) and you make it, everybody’s happy,” Kendricks said. “Sometimes it’s not a good thing, being that aggressive. But that’s what makes you a football player. I have to take that risk sometimes to be successful.
“I watch enough film and do enough studying during the week to know what some tendencies are and when I’m on the field, I can play loose. So if I see an open gap and I know they’re going to run through that gap, I can cheat to it because I have trust in my preparation.”
That work ethic, that knack for finding the ball — combined with his athleticism — are what intrigue NFL teams seeking an inside linebacker in this year’s draft.
“Very productive (guy), he was the leader of that defense, which was very good,” said NFL.com draft analyst Bucky Brooks. “He’s been coached in a pro system, so he understands the nuances that are needed to play at a high level. I think he’s a good player, and I think regardless of whether he’s a first-rounder or a second-rounder, he’s a guy that can come in and play.”
The only thing that might keep Kendricks from being a first-round pick this year is his size. Kendricks isn’t small, but he isn’t huge: He measured in at 6-foot, 232 pounds on Friday, which will obviously lead to concerns about his long-term durability.
There’s also the belief that he’s built a little differently than his brother, Mychal, a second-round pick by the Eagles in 2012, when Chiefs coach Andy Reid was still in Philadelphia.
Mychal is a ripped 6 fee and 240 pounds. But Brooks doesn’t necessarily think that the fact Eric isn’t quite the physical specimen that Mychal is should be held against Eric.
“Ideally, you want everybody to be a body-beautiful guy,” Brooks said. “But the important thing is, how do they play? Does he have medical concerns in his background? If he doesn’t have those, I think you go with him. (Good players) come in all shapes and sizes. He can get to the ball, he can make big plays.”
Kendricks doesn’t mind the comparisons. He insists he’ll always wish Mychal the best, largely because he’s confident in his own accomplishments.
“I’ve already created my own legacy — I’m Eric Kendricks,” he said. “But at the end of the day, I’ll always be my brother’s little brother. I’m going to keep getting questions and I don’t mind them at all. I think he’s a great guy, a great football player. Shoot, I love to talk about him.
“We’re the same blood … we bring a lot of the same characteristics to the game. We can do a lot of things that a lot of people can’t do. Flexibility, speed, collision at point of attack ... those are things we both bring to the table.”
Provided NFL teams agree, Kendricks won’t be waiting too long to hear his name in this year’s draft, regardless of his size. And while he declined to elaborate, specifically, on the teams that have interviewed him, he did say he’s heard good things about the Chiefs’ head coach.
“That’s who my brother was drafted by, so Andy Reid, I’ve followed him since he coached Donovan McNabb, Jeremiah Trotter, all those guys,” Kendricks said. “(Mychal) loved him. He had nothing but positive things to say about him.”
And rest assured, the Chiefs can say the same about Kendricks.
“When you talk about the linebacker, here’s how you look at it ... you kind of figure out what the college coaches say — he's a great kid,” general manager John Dorsey said of Kendricks. “He can run and he can do all that stuff. He’s a pretty sharp kid.”
Plays like the interception return he made against Virginia seem to prove it, as do the countless others he made throughout the season.
So, no, Kendricks is not worried about his size, and no, he does not care where he plays. When asked whether he’d fit best in a 3-4 or 4-3 system, his answer was firm, but confident.
“I’m best on the field, honestly,” Kendricks said. “I can play any linebacker position. I love to be behind the ball in the middle, running both ways for the run, and I love to be out wide for the pass — I don’t mind it at all. I think I have the athletic skill to do everything.”