CHAMPAIGN — The way Tarique Barnes sees it, his early offers from the likes of Arkansas, Mississippi State and Missouri actually slowed his recruitment.
As that SEC trio never went all in on its pursuit of the Memphis, Tenn., linebacker, Barnes said he had smaller schools after his senior season tell him they thought he had already signed or wouldn’t be as interested.
“That was my perspective of why everything had gone so slow,” said Barnes, who also picked up an offer from Navy.
That slow recruitment, though, left the door open for Illinois. The Illini offered, Barnes committed in January immediately after his official visit and then signed during the regular February period.
Six months later, Barnes is already on the defensive two-deep as Dele Harding’s backup at middle linebacker. That was the plan Illinois had for the 6-foot-1, 225-pound freshman when he arrived on campus this summer.
“Tarique, we’re asking a lot of being middle linebacker,” Illinois linebackers coach Miles Smith said. “He’s making close calls. He’s having to make checks. He’s doing a whole lot we usually don’t ask freshmen to do, and he’s stepped up to the plate.”
Barnes was thrust into that role as soon as Illinois’ training camp opened Aug. 2. He’s held down that spot in the intervening weeks, with the season opener coming Aug. 31 against Akron.
“When you bring in new players, we’re going to put them in a position where we can see exactly what they are,” Illinois coach and defensive coordinator Lovie Smith said. “Halfway through camp it tells you whether they need more or if they need to get less. Tarique has picked it up. We put a lot on his plate coming in as a freshman linebacker making all the calls and being on all the special teams.”
The play-calling responsibility isn’t easy. Barnes has to make the decisions and do so with the confidence to convince the rest of the defense it’s the right call — even if it isn’t. Miles Smith admits that’s not easy and not just for a freshman, but Barnes has done everything the coaching staff has asked and is studying up on his position.
“It’s a little on the tougher side, but in this game, you have to know how to stand on your own and be able to stand up and do those type of things,” Barnes said. “Playing around a bunch of older guys — especially that have already been in the system and know it — it can be a bit much of pressure. It kind of raises you to that standpoint to be able to compete and do it at the level everybody else is. I feel like that’s a good thing that they put that pressure on me because it lets me rise up to play with everybody else.”
Barnes has impressed his older teammates with how he’s handled the responsibility that’s come with his position.
“This is hard coming in as a freshman,” redshirt junior linebacker Milo Eifler said. “Just think about it. A couple months ago he was graduating from high school, and now he’s taken charge on the two-deep defense. He’s doing a great job. He still has some work to go — we all do — but I feel like he’s definitely going to be a great player in this defense.”
Barnes is one of four freshman linebackers on the Illinois roster along with former four-star recruit Shammond Cooper and walk-ons Ryan Meed and Mark Di Iorio. Having that group to lean on, Barnes said, has been helpful in the first few months of his college career.
“You don’t feel like it’s just you having to go through this transition,” he continued. “It’s the game of football. The adversity stuff comes with it — especially coming to the next level. It makes it easier knowing all of y’all are working through the same thing.”
While Barnes shot into the two-deep as soon as training camp opened, Cooper’s path to working with the second string took a bit longer. The St. Louis native, though, did show some progression in the last week-plus to at least get some reps with that group.
“The young guys, are they there yet completely? Are they game ready? No, but they’re moving there,” Miles Smith said. “By the time the first game comes, you never know, they could play the whole game. We have a competition going on right now in the linebacker room, and every job is open. Those guys have the ability to play day one if we need to.”