California ILB Mychal Kendricks still can remember the first game of his college career as if it were yesterday.
The Golden Bears were hosting Michigan State, and the 17-year-old true freshman found himself in for the opening kickoff. As a member of the special-teams unit, Kendricks was in awe of the men he saw across from him.
"I just remember my heart poundng really fast," Kendricks said. "These guys were big. I was 17 years old, playing against a bunch of grown, 22-, 23-year-olds. It was just nerve-racking for me."
The pressure failed to get to Kendricks as he tallied tackles on two of California's seven kickoffs that evening. In many ways, Kendricks has continued to thrive under pressure. After earning a starting position with the defensive unit, he continued to prove his worth as a big-game player. During his senior year, Kendricks accumulated 10 tackles against USC, 13 tackles against Stanford and 10 tackles in the Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl. He also managed to work his way around a burly, star-studded Cardinal offensive line for one of his three sacks on the season.
"You can't ask for anything better than great competition. That's what you play the game for," Kendricks said. "It's great playing against the best teams like Stanford, Oregon and USC because you don't get offenses in the country that are going to be better than that with Stanford's front, Oregon's speed and USC's versatility. It's a great stage to perform at and for me to get out at, and it's a great opportunity."
Kendricks utilized the big stage as best he could, finishing his collegiate career with 260 tackles and 36½ tackles for loss — 13½ of which were sacks. He also added four interceptions in his career. Perhaps more important to his potential professional career, he proved that he could play both inside and outside linebacker.
A self-described inside linebacker in high school, Kendricks didn't necessarily want to play on the edges at Cal. He recalled being upset when his coaches asked him to play on the outside, because the middle is what he was accustomed to and because he knew that his best shot at the NFL lay on the inside. Nevertheless, the Golden Bears didn't have enough personnel on the edges, and realizing that, Kendricks made the switch. He found that his new position was far more fun than he had thought it would be.
"I had to step up and do what they were asking me to do, so I just took it and ran with it," Kendricks said. "The outside is real fun. You can just be an athlete out there, you don't necessarily have to think as much, and you don't have as much responsibility because you can just come off the edges and be an athlete."
He excelled at outside linebacker, finishing with 72 tackles in his sophomore season. Under a new defensive coordinator, Kendricks compiled 66 tackles and five sacks in 2010, a performance good enough to convince some that he ought to remain on the edge. Kendricks thought otherwise and thrived when given the chance to play inside linebacker again. He tallied 107 tackles, including 14½ tackles for loss, with three sacks in 2011, despite playing half of the season with a cast on his hand after sustaining a broken left thumb against Utah. His efforts earned him the 2011 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year Award, an accolade given annually to the best defensive player in the Pac-12. Kendricks said it was a particularly special honor given the award's namesake.
"It's a huge honor because some people forget that this is a guy who went and was a great football player and stopped playing football to go fight for his country," Kendricks said. "It takes such character and a real special person to do what he did. He deserves to be recognized, and I'm just glad I could be that person to represent him in his glory."
Kendricks, who doesn't turn 22 until September, had some glorious moments of his own in college, including a one-handed interception along the sideline against Arizona State that he attributed to film study. In fact, the linebacker attributed many of his biggest plays to copious film study, as well as tips from LB coach Kenwick Thompson. He said that studying film was something he learned how to do during his time at California.
"It's our game plan, the way the coaches prepared us and doing countless hours of film study," Kendricks said. "That's a big, big thing and a big key to my success. I was probably in the film room more this year than I ever have been."
He also cited fellow Golden Bears NFL prospect D.J. Holt as someone who taught him the importance of film study. According to Kendricks, the extra hours of film study not only help with creating turnovers, but also help him get in the right position to make big hits.
Known as a hard hitter, perhaps for hits like the one he put on UCLA RB Derrick Coleman in which he literally lifted Coleman in the air before slamming him down, Kendricks acknowleged the thrill of placing the perfect hit on an offensive player. However, he said that such a hit isn't the ultimate goal.
"You always want to put hard hits; you don't always get them," Kendricks said. "That's why you watch film so you know when that play is coming, so you can have that jaw-dropping hit that gets the crowd up. Yeah, that's what you want. I feel like I lay the smack on people, but at the end of the day, the goal is just to get them on the ground. If I can't get the big hit, I'll take the tackle. I'm not always looking for the big hit like some of these other linebackers are."
Having proven his worth at both inside and outside linebacker, Kendricks could be a hot commodity come April.
"I'm versatile," said Kendricks, who measured at 5-11 1/8 and 239 pounds at the Combine. "I hope that during the Combine or whenever I work out with the teams, they'll see that and they'll look back on my film both years and they'll see that as well, because it only made me better getting both experiences. I'm used to them both; I remember them both. I can play anyplace if a team asks me to."
Whether the scouts noticed his versatility or not, they certainly noticed his athleticism in Indianapolis. The NFL Scouting Combine only served to amp up Kendricks' draft stock, as he led all linebackers with a time of 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash, a vertical leap of 39½ inches and a broad jump of 10 feet 7 inches.