Setting the Barr

Junior college transfer Martize Barr has the look of the playmaker Illinois so desperately needs.

CHAMPAIGN - Wide receiver at Illinois has become like the lost and found, the answer for most potential 'where are they now' trivia questions on the team.

The top half of the unit currently consists of a former punter and track participant, a former quarterback, a former safety, a player who spent time at corner last preseason, a former high school running back and a former junior college receiver, who as it turns out, dabbled at safety during his last stint at the FBS level.

It's the latter of that group that could make the coaches look smart.

Martize Barr, who began his career at New Mexico, splitting time on offense and in the secondary, before starring at Iowa Western C.C. last season, has the look of a guy ready to be a threat for an Illinois offense that didn't scare anything in 2012.

The Washington D.C. native might be generously listed at 6-foot, but his compact body looks strong. His legs look powerful, his takeoffs explosive and there's a certain 'it factor' by the way he conducts himself in practice.

He's the guy you can't stop watching.

On a practice field with so many new names and numbers, especially at wideout, Barr is what stands out, his skills glaring and his style comforting.

Already running with the No. 1 offense, Barr said he knew adjusting to Big Ten football would be a challenge, but it didn't take long for him to settle in.

"I've adjusted to the game speed pretty quickly," he said. "Now I'm rolling with it and trying to learn the offense."

It's not just the offense though. Barr is also at the top of the list of candidates to be the punt returner. And he's yapping to anybody who will listen about being on the kick return team, too.

"I'm definitely in everybody's ear," he said of his campaign. "I'm trying to get everywhere I can and make as many plays as I can."

He wants the ball. That's the ticket, made clear by his stance on potentially playing defense.

"I don't know if I want to go back over there," he said.

That's fine with the coaches. They've been desperately looking for any form of a playmaker to employ at receiver after a dismal showing last season.

The former punter and track guy, Ryan Lankford led the team with 469 yards and five touchdowns. He started off hot, but by season's end the receiver position lacked, well, significance.

The main problem was there was no big-play ability, hardly any yards after catch or chunk yardage.

Nobody seemed capable of making something happen.

So this offseason, grasping at straws or not, the staff moved quarterback Miles Osei and safety Steve Hull to the spot for good. They join Justin Hardee, the rising sophomore who started off as a corner before flashing potential at wideout as a freshman, and diminutive Devin Church, a running back in high school recruited as an athlete, returned from a knee injury that cost him the chance to play in his freshman year.

Without Barr's signing, though, optimism would be an impossible sell.

"Yeah, he's done a very good job," coach Tim Beckman said. "He's shown that he's a junior college football player and has played college football a little bit in the junior college ranks. He played at a very good program, and he's stepped in and kind of learned quite fast."

Barr enrolled in January with two seasons of eligibility remaining. It didn't take long for his teammates to realize he was real.

"They welcomed me with open arms like I was their brother as soon as I got here," Barr said. "They welcomed me in, so it made for a smooth transition."

Also helping to ease the move, Illinois hired a new offensive coordinator in Bill Cubit and named Mike Bellamy the new wide receivers coach in the offseason.

That meant a new system and new plays and a new leader for both the offense and the position. It meant that nobody on the team knew more than anybody else, which curb-stomped any disadvantage in terms of preexisting knowledge Barr might have had compared to his peers.

With everybody still working to know where to go, it's Barr's natural talent and ability that makes him stand out.

"I don't think we're full speed," he said. "It's spring ball, so everyone is still learning how and getting everything down pat. By the summertime we'll be 100 percent and ready to roll."

Barr is now on his third different team in as many years. His experience has range. He played against Oregon in New Mexico's season opener in 2010 before redshirting with a hand injury. The next season he played receiver, running back and safety before leaving for Iowa Western, where he helped lead the team to the NJCAA national title and a perfect 11-0 record.

Barr grew up a lot during that three-year stint, saw struggle and success. Now in Champaign, he's taken a liking to the community, fallen for the place where he hopes to end his college career.

With plenty of reasons to feel good about his new home, Barr has a plan to enhance his newest football experience.

"I love the atmosphere (in Champaign), especially when we start winning games," he said.

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