Tuesday, September 27, 2022

'Smiling is like my therapy': Daniel Barker joins MSU, brings joy and smiles with him

August 15, 2022
<p>Photo courtesy of MSU Athletics.</p>

Photo courtesy of MSU Athletics.

When the name Daniel "DJ" Barker comes up around the Michigan State football facility, there’s a collective smile and sigh.

Not because of his game-winning touchdown against the Spartans in 2019 that stunned those in attendance when he was playing for Illinois, but for how much he likes to talk and smile.

“My biggest challenge with him is going to be to keep him quiet,” Michigan State tight ends coach Ted Gilmore said. “If you’ve been around, you know what I’m talking about.”

However, this wasn’t the plan for Barker. After finishing his fourth season at Illinois, he planned to head to the NFL and achieve his dreams there. However, after receiving his grade and getting some advice, Barker rescinded his name from the draft and decided to enter the portal in January.

He then tuned into Peach Bowl between Michigan State and Pittsburgh and saw the schemes the Spartans were running and was immediately attracted to East Lansing. After making a trip out, he knew he found his new home.

“I know how to win in the Woodshed,” Barker said, jokingly. “Really, it was just the culture and being a Spartan dog. It's really what I kind of fed into. Everybody, just the players, how genuine everybody is, real recognizes real.”

In four seasons with the Illini, Barker caught 64 passes for 827 yards and 11 touchdowns. A mainstay of the offense for three years, Barker was used in mostly passing downs as a senior in Champaign, Illinois. Now, the coaching staff will ask him to do everything from catching the ball, to blocking and more.

That, the success of previous transfers and the potential for playing time were all factors in his decision to come to MSU.

“Coming here, seeing a team with a winning culture, of course, that is going to play a factor,” Barker said. “I’m a winner at heart, so I'm gonna definitely take that into consideration.” 

Barker, however, brings much more to the equation than just his play. He also brings that joyful, always-talking presence. His demeanor, at a podium, in front of a camera or just on the practice field remains the same.

“I like to have fun, it's never a dull moment with me,” Barker said. “Smiling is like my therapy. I like to smile, I want everybody to be happy because even when something's negative, you got to turn into a positive. You gotta control what you can control and just be happy all the time. It’s not good when you’re sad. Nothing’s ever good when you’re sad.”

Michigan State tight end Tyler Hunt is in his third year at the position and knows what’s needed from the position that Michigan State offensive coordinator Jay Johnson calls the “MVP of the offense” and feels Barker, in addition to those laughs and smiles he brings, can make an impact right away.

“He can help us out this year for sure, run and pass game,” Hunt said. “DJ is a big, athletic guy. He's got a lot of experience coming from Illinois.”

This is the first time that Gilmore will have a plethora of options to work with in East Lansing after his first season with Hunt transitioning to punter and utilizing Connor Heyward in the role a year ago. In addition to guys like Hunt and Barker, Gilmore also has the tantalizing talented sophomore Maliq Carr, who flashes elite upside with his size and skill at the position.

“Now we've got a whole crew,” Gilmore said. “I think we are deeper than we have been since I’ve been here. If someone did go down, I feel we got some guys that can move in and at least function.”

With the departure of Kenneth Walker III, this is a room that will need to produce for the offense to sustain its production from a year ago. Both in the passing game and blocking in the pass game.

“We are hoping we can do that this year,” Gilmore said. “We feel we got some guys that can run and truly make teams have to defend the entire field and that's what we're trying to get to, ultimately.”

While the smiles and laughs are always appreciated in any setting, for the tight end room to take a step toward being productive, Barker will need to take that step in learning the offense and becoming a better blocker. 

“Once he learns it all, once it slows down for him, this young man has some skills,” Gilmore said. “I’m glad we got him.”

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