7 days to Camp Rantoul
Counting down the 50 most important Illini
No. 7: Earnest Thomas, safety
Why he’s important: Experience. Experience. Experience. Can’t teach it. Can’t coach it. Have to have it. Thomas does. The physical defensive back will start the season as Illinois’ strong safety. A position well-suited for the physical player. Thomas ranked fourth on the team last year in tackles with 69, which is the second-most coming back, and forced a team-high three fumbles. Thomas needs to be comfortable in pass coverage and stuffing the run, and showed at times last year he could handle both. Posted career-high tackle totals by making nine stops against Indiana and Minnesota last year. With a young secondary — the three other projected starters in Taylor Barton, V’Angelo Bentley and Eaton Spence have exactly two starts between them — the presence of Thomas on the field could go a long way towards soothing any nerves. Thomas caused two turnovers in the season opener against Western Michigan. Any help creating more takeaways is welcome news to Tim Beckman and his staff.
Fast fact: Thomas was the only Big Ten player to get ejected from a game last year because of a helmet-to-helmet hit, which happened when Illinois played Penn State.
Tomorrow: No. 6