CHAMPAIGN — Speaking with Illinois football tight end Daniel Barker outside of a football situation, it is surprising to learn that he is famous on social media for twerking after a touchdown against Penn State last season and that he is one of the more exuberant players on the Fighting Illini roster during the four quarters of a game.
Otherwise, he is a reserved man with few words to say about the transformation he makes when taking the field.
"Once I come out and get to the tunnel, I come out and I'm able to see all the fans and the people out there. It takes me to a whole other level of loving the game and I can express how I feel," Barker said.
Barker, who was on paper the Illini's second best receiver last season with 19 catches for 268 yard and two touchdowns, and his tight end counterpart Luke Ford were a major part of quarterback Brandon Peter's strong Orange and Blue Spring Game on Monday.
Ford led all receivers with five catches and Barker had four receptions and head coach Bret Bielema has seen incredible improvement from the position as a whole.
"I think our tight ends from practice No. 1 to where we are now are one of the most improved groups on the football team," he said. "D.J. and Luke are unique personalities. They have openly bought into what we are asking them to do and the people who will be rewarded the most are them. They are guys that have great potential."
Bielema credited Barker and Ford with embracing both sides of the tight end game openly and with both hands.
"I give both Luke and D.J. a lot of credit. There are two parts to tight end play — the run game and the passing game — and normally guys are more interested in the passing game than the run game," Bielema said. "They have made a commitment of what we needed out of them and I think (offensive coordinator) Tony Peterson design-wise has done some really nice things."
Ford finished with 88 yards and the Orange team's one receiving touchdown in the spring game and Barker has been impressed with Ford's skills.
"Luke can have a big season coming up. Luke has things that God doesn't give to everybody so it was good to see him out there doing what he is supposed to do (on Monday)," Barker said. "As a unit I think that we did a good job. There are a few things we have to clean up but we will continue to come to work and trust the process and it will take us far. I'm coming to work every day and doing my job and things are improving and get better if you trust the process."
The Illini had a run-by-committee plan on Monday as Chase Brown (10 carries, 80 yards, 2 TDs), Reggie Love III (nine carries, 63 yards, TD) and Chase Hayden (seven carries, 52 yards, TD) shared the workload. Bielema sees his tight ends and backs having their successes tied together.
"A lot of people don't realize this. but the key to a good run game is a good tight end. People defend the perimeter and wide receivers and they jam the box to defend the run game. The guys that end up being rewarded because of it are the tight ends," Bielema said.
Although it was a scrimmage televised on the Big Ten Network with possibly other teams watching, Bielema said he believes it was a good representation of what the Illini offense and defense will look like August 28 when they face Nebraska at home.
"We put out what we are in our offense and defense. There is more in our cookie jar but this spring we kind of just wanted to get good at playing football," Bielema said. "All three (Orange running backs) had a moment where I thought 'that's pretty good.' I've always in my head coaching tenure have enjoyed the ability to have three and possibly four guys at running back. If you get the right guys to line up that spot, you get a situation that you are going to find ways to get them the ball in the throw game and the run game."
Spring practice finishes up on Saturday and Bielema and his staff will be meeting with each player to complete an evaluation of what to work on over the summer.
"I will go through exit interviews all week with our coaches and players and I'm sure we will have some curveballs come to us by the end of the week," Bielema said. "They are non-football meetings and (we talk about) where they stand athletically, academically and socially. Is it that we want to add five pounds in the summer or do we want to take 10 pounds off them? We will have an open conversation about their strengths and weaknesses."
Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten