GIBSON CITY — Bryce Barnes questioned himself Tuesday afternoon, less than 24 hours before he was set to leave for the University of Illinois.
Barnes' response, after a brief pause, gave him the appearance of being confident, yet hopeful, to improve his craft with Lovie Smith's Illini football program.
"Am I ready, mentally and physically?" Barnes asked. "Mentally, I'm there. I'm ready. I'm ready to get to work. Physically, I think I'm almost there. The cardio part is really going to be the part that gets me."
The recent Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley graduate will have ample opportunity to perfect that aspect of his football acumen.
He was among the incoming Illinois freshmen who moved onto campus Wednesday in preparation for the 2019 Illini football campaign, and he'll jump into preseason workouts on Monday.
Barnes received a preferred walk-on offer from Smith's program less than a week after a strong performance during the 2018 Class 2A state football championship game, in which the Falcons defeated Maroa-Forsyth 35-16 on Nov. 23 in Champaign.
During the game, Barnes made seven tackles, recorded two sacks and recovered a fumble in the end zone for a touchdown on top of posting 40 all-purpose yards offensively.
That all went down at Memorial Stadium, which Barnes now can call home.
"I'm ready for the new experience," Barnes said. "It's going to be challenging sometimes, but it's definitely going to all be worth it in the end."
Though the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Barnes was recruited at linebacker, he said he's now been talking most frequently with Illinois tight ends coach Cory Patterson.
"I'm definitely OK with that. I'm OK with any side of the ball," Barnes said. "It'll be fun. It'll be weird playing one side of the ball (instead of multiple), but it'll still be difficult."
Even though Barnes feels he has room to grow in his jump from the Heart of Illinois Conference to the Big Ten Conference, he's also happy with his preparation to this point, particularly his work with Tim Leonard at Elite Performance in Gibson City.
"Dr. Leonard has been a huge part of my success," Barnes said. "I told him I needed speed (workouts), and he put speed in there, and I think that's going to translate onto the football field."
Fitting in with all his new teammates is something Barnes also is looking forward to.
He said he'll be roommates with a fellow preferred walk-on in Ryan Meed, a linebacker out of New York. In addition to building a rapport with Meed, Barnes enjoyed conversations he had at the most recent Illini spring game this past April.
"They're cool guys," Barnes said. "They're kind of like me — they're ready to get to work. They're ready to change the program around."
Welcome to C-U
Illinois football freshmen arrived on campus Wednesday before summer workouts begin Monday. Beat writer SCOTT RICHEY offers up five who could see the field often during the 2019 season:
Right now, the Texas native is slated to play cornerback. But he has speed. Oodles and oodles of it. If the Illini could use the 5-foot-11, 175-pound athlete in multiple ways, go for it. A play or two at receiver. Returning kicks. Whatever Illinois can do to get a versatile playmaker involved in the game, the better off the Illini will be.
Part of the pipeline from St. Louis to Champaign, the linebacker from Trinity Catholic was a tackling machine for the Class 3 state champs in Missouri last season. Cooper compiled 137 tackles, including 16 for loss, in his final high school season. He’s a bit undersized right now (what freshmen aren’t, though), yet he could see time because linebacker depth is lacking for the Illini.
Think Josh Ferguson perhaps. The 5-foot-8, 175-pound running back from Plano, Texas, could become an X-factor in Rod Smith’s offense. He has speed, speed and more speed and was productive his senior season, rushing for 897 yards and 17 touchdowns to go along with 43 receptions for 523 yards and five TDs. Get him the ball in space and watch him work.
Still a bit raw when it comes to his football skills — he only started playing his sophomore season at Belleville West — the defensive end is an athlete. And a big body at 6 feet, 5 inches and 270 pounds. Given Bobby Roundtree’s severe spinal injury, depth at defensive end is crucial. Randolph may do enough in training camp to warrant some early playing time.
All eyes will be on the St. Louis native this season. Is he the quarterback of the future? Or quarterback of the present? Either way, whatever the 5-foot-10, 170-pound dual-threat QB from Trinity Catholic does will be closely monitored. Missouri’s Gatorade Player of the Year the last two seasons could find himself in the mix to start the season opener on Aug. 31 with a strong summer.