URBANA — At one point as a youth football player, Daniel Barker knew he needed to lose weight if he wanted to get on the field.
He didn't know about nutritionists and the healthy way to shed pounds until he joined the Illinois football team last year. Barker knew salads, but he had to cut quick — about 13 pounds in three weeks. In the mornings, he would hop in a garbage bag, throw on a sweatshirt and run at a local park in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to burn fat via heavy sweating. It worked and Barker was able to play.
When Barker came back from Christmas break as a freshman tight end last season, he was up to 265 pounds and unhappy with how he was moving. He wasn't in a bad place mentally because of that experience in youth football and knowing how to lose weight, but he wasn't happy with himself.
“I was very shocked," Barker said. "I was like, ‘Wow, I haven’t been this way.’ It will never happen again."
This time, he didn't need to throw on a garbage bag and sweat out his weight. He made a commitment, worked with the team nutritionist, cut his meals down, ate better, focused on hydration and put in the workouts to get back to a more comfortable weight.
As a 6-foot-4 sophomore now, he said he's at 250 pounds and his ideal weight is 245 pounds. The change has worked. He's shown the ability to make plays through the first week of training camp and is proving to be a valuable piece to the offensive puzzle without standout tight end Luke Ford, whose waiver to become immediately eligible after transferring from the University of Georgia was denied by the NCAA.
"I just knew I had to work to get down to where I want to be, to be able to showcase the talent I’m capable of showing," Barker said.
At a more desirable weight, Barker has been able to show his full set of skills.
“He needed to tighten his body up; he’s done that," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said. "He’s a smart player. He’s a competitor. I love his energy that he brings to the team. He’s a good football player. With Luke Ford not playing this year, we’re going to need him to even have a bigger role. He’s able to do that. Every day there’s something to see Daniel Barker do that you like."
Barker is more than a player who had to lose weight to get on the field. He has the talent to make an impact, coming to Champaign as a three-star recruit by all the major recruiting services and had offers from Kentucky, Pittsburgh and others. He played in all 12 games with three starts last year and had nine receptions for 84 yards and a touchdown. Smith remembers Barker's first day on campus and remembers that Barker never lacked confidence, and never needed "pumped up."
That much about Barker hasn't changed. He's still a wildly entertaining watch on the field. After catching a touchdown pass in the corner of the end zone during a 7-on-7 portion of Tuesday's practice, Barker stretched his arms and flew around the field like a jet ready to take off.
“I just give it all I’ve got and have fun with what I want to do," Barker said.
On the very next play, Barker caught a touchdown in the middle of the field, laid on his back and put his arms straight up into the air to celebrate. He knows how to have fun — it's a trait no one wants to take from him. Smith said the enthusiasm is authentic and a perfect fit for the team. Teammates agree.
“Man, D.J. is hilarious," running back Reggie Corbin said. "When D.J. scores, he’s going to celebrate. He’s just going to be D.J. at all times. I think we’ve all learned to accept that and let him grow and keep doing what he’s doing."
Barker described himself as versatile, making those touchdowns possible. He's got the size and strength to be an issue for defenders and is putting in work to become a better blocker. At a lighter weight, he's back to feeling like he can fly around the field and make an impact in the offense, especially without Ford.
“Daniel has the ability. I liked his high school film, it was just a matter of him growing up and he’s starting to grow up," offensive coordinator Rod Smith said. "His body is changing, he’s got strong hands, he’s got an athleticism to him. He gives us a vertical threat down the seam, a big target and a guy we can throw to and he’s also getting better in the run game."
The opportunity is there for Barker to make a splash in his second season, and he knows it.
“Of course I’d love Luke to be right there by me, but hey, he’s not here and now I’ve got to step it up another notch and that’s where I take my game is to where it’s at right now," he said.