2 days to Camp Rantoul
Counting down the 50 most important Illini.
No. 2: Earnest Thomas, STAR
Why he’s important: Thomas will have to become a star on defense. Well, technically, that’s his new position this season. The hybrid linebacker/defensive back position Tim Beckman brought to Illinois seems like a perfect fit for the aggressive and hard-hitting Thomas. He is the leading returning tackler for Illinois after he compiled 101 tackles last season playing strong safety. Illinois moved him to STAR this spring in an effort to better utilize his speed closer to the line of scrimmage. It’s a good decision by Illinois, especially since Thomas was exposed at times last year in the secondary. He did lead Illinois in pass breakups and pass deflections with seven apiece, but wasn’t able to gather in an interception. He’s a possible All-Big Ten candidate if he excels at the STAR spot and helps keep running backs from breaking loose repeatedly in the open field. It was a problem area much of last season for Illinois, and Thomas will have the responsibility of containing those runs so they don’t become game-changing plays.
Fast fact: The communication major is comfortable with the media and may replace Nathan Scheelhaase as the go-to interview with the Illini this season. And because of his accomplishments, too. He is tied for fifth in program history with six forced fumbles, and only needs three this season to move past Dana Howard for third all-time.
Last year’s ranking: No. 7
Tomorrow: No. 1
No. 3: Josh Ferguson