- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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CHICAGO -- It's easy to spot Geronimo Allison on the football field, and not just because of the green no-contact jersey he has been sporting this spring at Illinois.
At 6-foot-3 and wiry, Allison fits the mold of an outside receiver. He has good speed and agility, as he showed Friday at Gately Stadium on Chicago's South Side, leaping for a pass from Wes Lunt in the corner of the end zone. Allison, who enrolled at Illinois in January, is quickly gaining attention midway through his first spring with the Fighting Illini. And not just because of his name.
"He's got a ton of potential," Lunt said. "He's picked up the offense really quick. He's already running with the [starters], and he's going to help us this year."
Allison never has had a problem performing on the field. His plight was getting there.
As a senior at Spoto High School in Riverview, Fla., Allison averaged nearly 22 yards per catch with four touchdowns. But his prep bio, at least for football, ends there.
Allison finished ninth grade with a grade point average that had dipped to 1.4. He was ineligible to compete as a sophomore and junior. Although he returned for his senior season, the opportunity to play major college football, at least right away, wasn't available.
"I realized you can't really play this game without grades," Allison said. "It will hold you back."
Allison landed at Iowa Western Community College, a junior-college powerhouse located in Council Bluffs, Iowa, near the Nebraska border. He helped Iowa Western to the 2012 NJCAA national title and led the Midwest Conference in catches (69), receiving yards (872) and receiving touchdowns (8).
More importantly, Allison boosted his grades, earning a B average by the end of his second year.
"He graduated in three semesters, which is pretty darn good for a kid who had some academic issues coming out of high school," Iowa Western coach Scott Strohmeier said. "He had his mind set that he was going to class and do the work. His goal was to get to Division I. We knew he had the talent. The only thing that would hold him back was his academics, and he wasn't going to let that happen."
The offers that could have come in high school started to flow in. Kansas State and Iowa State pursued Allison, but he settled on Illinois. Two of his teammates on Iowa Western's title-winning team, wide receiver Martize Barr and tight end Dallas Hinkhouse, already played for the Illini.
"I didn't come over here empty-handed," Allison said.
Barr considers Allison like a younger brother. When Illinois offered Allison a scholarship, Barr became his primary recruiter.
"I knew I could get him here," Barr said.
Both men have taken the long way to Champaign.
Barr, a native of Washington, D.C., began his career as a safety at New Mexico, playing for former Illinois offensive coordinator Mike Locksley. When Locksley was fired in September 2011 after going just 2-26 with the Lobos, Barr transferred to Iowa Western. He had hoped to follow Locksley to Maryland, where Locksley went as offensive coordinator, but instead wound up at Illinois.
Barr was the juco receiver generating buzz last spring with the Illini, but his numbers during the season (26 catches, 246 yards) didn't meet expectations. The coaches want more from Barr this fall and have high hopes for Allison.
Illinois needs help at receiver after losing top target Steve Hull and veterans Spencer Harris and Ryan Lankford. Barr actually is the top returning wide receiver. (Josh Ferguson, who had 50 catches last year, plays running back.)
"We won a national championship together," Barr said of himself and Allison. "I love him to death. We can't wait to get back on that boundary together and get that championship pedigree here to Illinois."
Strohmeier considered redshirting Allison in 2012 because Iowa Western had so much firepower at receiver. But much like this spring at Illinois, Allison "stood out, stood out and made plays."
"Athletically and running and catching the football and understanding the game, he's not going to have any problem [at Illinois]," Strohmeier said. "He's also not afraid to block somebody in the run game."
Allison is spending the spring familiarizing himself with a more sophisticated, pass-oriented offense based on timing and tempo. Offensive coordinator Bill Cubit wants the ball out quickly, and receivers have to be precise with their routes.
The academic transition, so far, has been smooth.
"G-Mo's doing outstanding in school," Illini coach Tim Beckman said. "He's only been here for a couple months, but he's proven and shown everything that he needs to do to get himself better."
Allison doesn't lack in confidence in his ability, which isn't surprising for a guy named Geronimo. His mother, Melissa Golver, wanted a unique name for her son.
It led to some teasing during his childhood, but Allison eventually grew accustomed to the name.
"I'm planning on naming my son after me," he said, "if I have one."
If Allison's plan comes true, Illinois fans soon will know the name. After catching up in the classroom, Allison is primed to catch plenty of passes this fall for the Illini.
"It's going to be fun," he said. "I'm going to put on a show."
4mCraig Haubert and Tom Luginbill