Tight end has never been a marquee position for the Illini.
The closest to a breakout the position has had was the combination of Jon Davis/Matt LaCosse. Fred Wakefield? Our current Athletic Director?
It just hasn't been prioritized by previous coaching staffs. That seems to have changed over the course of the last year. Will it lead to results? That's yet to be determined, but there is some legitimate upside with Cory Patterson's group.
Future of TE: Luke Ford
It's a shame the NCAA didn't see fit to grant Ford his eligibility. Did he have a case by the law of NCAA parameters? Not particularly. Did he have a better case than several other players across the country who were granted immediate eligibility? Absolutely.
Illinois could really use his skillset this season. Based on his high school film, he would have been a nightmare of a red zone matchup at least. He's big, strong, can gain separation from linebackers, he's got good hands, and he’s a willing blocker. He'll be that tight end that finally breaks the streak of relative ineffectiveness at tight end, in my opinion.
Lou Dorsey sure would have been nice to have too, but enough lamentations, let's get to the players who will actually suit up for 2019.
Current starter: Daniel Barker
Barker will take some of the sting out of the what-ifs this season. He has really taken a step in the right direction in the off-season. He looks like a more complete tight end. He’ll be a force both in the short to intermediate passing game, and the running game as a blocker.
If Brandon Peters is the starter week one, you'd have to love Barker's chances as a lead target.
Watching his time at Michigan, you could see he's really good at utilizing the tight ends. Sean McKeon and Zach Gentry were effective as safety valves for Peters. Plays such as:
Barker will be used in a similar fashion. Tight end screens, dig routes, anything across the middle will be fair game. He looks to be one of the most improved sophomores so far through training camp, so expect more from the rarely used position.
The upside play: Justice Williams
The fifth-year senior has been moved around a lot. He started as a linebacker, then was moved to wide receiver last season. He had a lot of trouble separating from cornerbacks and made a minimal impact. However, there is some upside with the move to tight end.
He won't be matched up against the fastest players on the defense anymore. That may allow him to break free and create separation against nickel corners and linebackers.
Jeremy Werner of 247 Sports mentioned several times at last season's training camp that Williams had some outstanding catches and showed off some impressive hands. If that can translate to tight end, look out. Along with Barker, Williams could be a force in the passing game for the Illini.
The rest of the depth consists of either blockers or receivers, but none of them will be relied on as much as the two previously mentioned. Griffin Palmer looks the part, but hasn't factored into the equation. Bryce Barnes and Alex Pihlstrom are nice walk-on players who have some potential. Barnes, specifically is a workout warrior.
And here it is! The lift of the week! Watch True freshman, @BarnesBryce35 big clean to make the #3bluecrew ! Future is looking strong! #GYMR #4bluecrewgoal no limits! @IlliniFootball @IlliniCPatt @StrengthIllini let’s go! #seperationsummer Whos next?! #BR97 pic.twitter.com/p4QXuCdcwn— Lou Hernandez (@Loustrength) June 21, 2019
Needless to say, tight end looks to be in good hands for the next couple of years. Expect production to at least double from last year anyways.