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There was always next year for Krys Barnes. Since the UCLA linebacker started football at 8 years old, he knew his plans for each fall. During the last four years at UCLA, that only intensified. Football was always his focus.
That might not be the case anymore.
For the senior who finishes his last UCLA final exam next week, Saturday’s season finale game against California is the gate to the rest of his life. He’ll step through with a mix of excitement and caution as he confronts a murky NFL future.
“I knew it was going to happen eventually,” Barnes said of confronting the end of his football career, “but for me, I just wanted it to be under my own power. And honestly it’s not really up to me.”
The 6-foot-1, 235-pound prospect is hoping to become the next graduate of the self-proclaimed LBU since UCLA had six linebackers selected in the last six NFL drafts. His 31 career starts rank second among UCLA’s current non-specialists, and his 74 tackles rank second on the team this year. In a rare combination of skills, he leads the Bruins (4-7, 4-4 Pac-12 Conference) in both tackles for loss (10) and pass breakups (seven).
Yet two NFL scouts told The Times last week that the “instinctive and hard-working” Barnes was “average across the board” and a late-round pick or a free agent.
All he wants is a shot, Barnes said. Saturday will be one of his final sales pitches, but he might not close the deal. After collecting nine tackles in UCLA’s 52-35 loss to USC, Barnes reaggravated a nagging knee injury that’s plagued him all year.
He is questionable for his final game at the Rose Bowl.
Barnes is determined to play, though, just like he was when he played through severe bronchitis that resulted in fluid in his lungs as a sophomore and a shoulder injury as a junior.
“Krys, it doesn’t matter if you break him, he’s going to be back the next play for more,” sophomore offensive lineman Christaphany Murray said.
Barnes is lauded among teammates for his leadership. He is usually the first senior mentioned by head coach Chip Kelly when he speaks about the group’s impact on the team. Redshirt senior outside linebacker Josh Woods called Barnes “the glue” that holds the defense together. As much as the Bruins need Barnes’ ability to cover in space and crash the backfield, they also need his voice in the middle of the defense.
It’s a drastic change from the freshman who was scared to speak in any position group meetings.
“Stitched lip,” Barnes jokes now of his shy freshman persona.
It was intimidating learning from Jayon Brown and Kenny Young, eventual NFL draft picks who were the starting linebackers in 2016 when Barnes was a freshman. The former three-star recruit from Bakersfield was getting yelled at every day just trying to pick up the scheme while figuring out how to live away from home for the first time.
He learned the importance of setting multiple alarms, realizing that no one was going to come into his room and wake him up if he was running late. He learned to be early, not just on time, and to be prepared. He studied his playbook religiously.
“I finally realized that I need to take action if I really wanted this thing to work out for myself,” Barnes said.
He worked his way into the starting lineup with eight starts as a sophomore. He broke out as a junior with nine tackles, three tackles for loss, a sack and one pass breakup against Washington. Barnes finally quieted his mind during the game.
“I got too tense and I started trying to make plays that weren’t my plays to make,” Barnes said, “so at that point, I just told myself, ‘Relax.’ ”
During his first season as a full-time starter, Barnes racked up 85 tackles with 10 tackles for loss. But just as he gained traction in his football career, his future started to earn his attention. The prospect of life after football, whether it’s immediately after UCLA or after a professional career, has stressed him out for the past year and a half.
He tries to talk to as many people as he can about their career paths: How did they start and what made them interested in it? He thinks about what he’s good at and what he enjoys. He’s good at lifting weights; he won the Iron Bruin Award last season for his efforts during workouts. He enjoys helping people.
The combination has him dreaming about opening an all-inclusive training center that caters to a variety of people from high-level athletes to older people going to physical therapy. He’s already picked the brains of the UCLA strength and conditioning staff.
“I’ve been growing into manhood for the past four years, so I kind of have it figured out,” the 21-year-old said, “but it’s still a long way to go.”
Barnes’ parents, Keith and Karen, gush about their son. He’s a “full-package person,” Keith says. Karen says Barnes thinks about everyone else so much and himself the least. That’s why his UCLA career, which featured four losing seasons, has been so tough to handle.
Barnes carries the team’s struggles on his shoulders. After UCLA’s blowout loss to Utah, he wrote on Twitter, “I take ownership … Gotta get right.” Her son is a fixer, Karen said, but UCLA’s struggles were beyond his handiwork.
“It sucks we don’t get a bowl game; of course, I want another game for my senior season,” Barnes said, “but I’m grateful for what I have had.”
There have been games in which he believes the Bruins beat themselves. But there was also a surreal comeback against Washington State when Barnes forced a key turnover in the fourth quarter. He’ll remember that feeling of swinging his arm and jarring the ball loose for a long time, he says with a wistful smile.
He believes in the future of UCLA under Kelly’s coaching staff. Barnes attests to that this year, despite the same struggles on game days, felt better in the locker room and on the field than last year.
“It’s going to be fun to see UCLA as a grown team next year,” Barnes said.
Barnes hopes he’ll be watching from a spot in the NFL.