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Illinois freshman linebacker Tarique Barnes (44) has drawn attention for his strong play during training camp.

URBANA — After the early signing period in December, Illinois linebackers coach Miles Smith started scouring the internet for players still on the board.

Smith searched through unsigned players and came across a a 6-foot-1 linebacker who ran a 10.9 second 100-meter dash with some size out of Cordova High School in Memphis, Tenn.

That was the first introduction to Tarique Barnes, and Smith liked what he saw. He and his father, Illinois head coach Lovie Smith, identified Barnes as someone they wanted on their football team. He signed during the February signing period and has been impressive in the first three weeks of Illinois football training camp.

Barnes' recruiting slowed after picking up early offers from SEC programs like Missouri, Arkansas and Mississippi State. He suspected some programs thought he had already pledged a commitment and that's why his recruitment slowed. Either way, Miles Smith was ready to pounce at the opportunity.

“I looked him up, saw a couple of his times and that got my attention," Miles Smith said. "I watched his film and went from there. It was a great opportunity to take advantage of other teams overlooking him."

Kansas and Navy came calling Barnes, he said, before he chose Illinois. He was trying to find the perfect fit on the football field. Then he visited Champaign, met with Lovie Smith and the coaching staff and knew he wanted to sign with the Illini.

“It was real crazy because at that point you’re kind of trying to make a decision on what you want to do and here comes, for me, one of the better-sounding opportunities," Barnes said.

He's slid into a middle linebacker position for the Illini and is running with the second string group. Lovie and Miles Smith have both praised Barnes, not only for his play, but also for his ability to understand concepts and relay the calls to older players.

“Another one of the talented guys who needs to play," Lovie Smith said. "Tarique has picked it up, and we’ve put a lot on his plate coming in as a freshman linebacker, making all the calls and being on all the special teams."

It's a lot to absorb, and the coaches know that. Barnes hasn't mastered everything yet, but he's only had three weeks of practice. The coaching staff hasn't slowed down the pace of the defense, meaning Barnes has had to jump in fast.

“We’ve put Tarique in a really tough spot," Miles Smith said. "It’s hard being a mike linebacker as a true freshman, but it’s especially hard with how we did things this year. Sometimes we’re a little slower with our installs. We feel like this year we have a vet group, so we want to be a little more up-tempo about everything we’re putting in. Tarique has been able to handle that remarkably well. Is he there completely yet? No. He still has a little bit of work to do, but I’ve been impressed with him so far."

Senior Dele Harding has a firm grip on the starting job, but Barnes has been a second-string option and is adjusting to sending calls to his veteran teammates. It's a challenge, but he knows it's necessary in his development as a player. He's also relishing the opportunity to learn from the players in front of him as he adapts to the speed of the college game.

“Playing around a bunch of older guys, especially who have already been in the system and know it, it can be a bit of pressure," Barnes said. "I think after learning it and seeing it, it kind of raises you to that standpoint to be able to compete and do it at the level everybody else is."

Eight months ago, Barnes was looking for a home while Miles Smith was searching the internet for any hidden gems he could find in the Class of 2019. Now, Barnes is absorbing plenty of information from the coaching staff and settling into life in a Lovie Smith defense.

Things worked out perfectly.

“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," he said.

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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