Thomas transferring to UI a mutual gain

Thomas transferring to UI a mutual gain

CHAMPAIGN — Difference maker. Game changer. Go-to guy.

All terms used to describe receiver Jeff Thomas.

"He's a freaking ballplayer is all I can say," St. Louis Trinity Catholic coach Terrence Curry said.

Another term: Illinois transfer.

Thomas, the 2016 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year from East St. Louis, started his career at Miami.

He put up solid numbers for Mark Richt's Hurricanes during his two seasons, catching 52 passes for 937 yards and five touchdowns.

But he wanted a change. Miami was too far from home. Too far from his daughter and family.

By late November, Thomas was no longer part of the Miami team.

Did he jump or was he pushed? Depends on who you believe.

Richt said in a statement on Nov. 21: "We have high standards for excellence, for conduct and for the commitment to team for all of the young men who wear our uniform, and we will not waver from those standards. We wish Jeff the very best as he moves forward in his journey."

The player's account differed with the Miami football program's version.

In a tweet published later that day in the Miami Herald, Thomas wrote: "Regarding to the situation with me. I did not get kicked off the team as of how bad it sounds. I came to a agreement with my head coach on leaving the program to better my future life and family life. I couldn't thank this program of how much they've done for me, and the things I've done on the field is my way of respect for the program."

A month later, Thomas found a new school, joining Lovie Smith's program in Champaign-Urbana.

Thomas signed a Big Ten tender of financial aid with plans to enroll for the spring semester.

Smith has met and talked with Thomas many times. The coach is comfortable with what transpired at Miami.

So is second-year Illinois offensive coordinator Rod Smith.

"I think every kid has to prove his worth," Rod Smith said. "There's no hesitation with Jeff. If there was, we wouldn't have moved forward. We did our research, not just on him, but on every kid we recruit.

"If we think there's a problem, we think it's going to be a chemistry issue or it's a situation where we don't feel comfortable with it, we don't proceed. That starts with Coach (Lovie) Smith. We're following his lead."

Waiting game

The receiver spent the holidays at home in East St. Louis.

What's ahead for Thomas? He hopes to be eligible for the 2019 season.

But it isn't guaranteed.

Thomas must write a letter outlining why he should receive a waiver. Normally, transfers are required to sit out a season when they move from one FBS school to another.

The Illinois compliance department will file the Thomas letter with the NCAA to start the process.

Illinois opens the season Aug. 31 against Akron. The Thomas ruling should come long before that.

Thomas is seeking admission to Illinois for the spring semester. Classes start Jan. 14. Once admitted, Thomas is eligible to participate in winter workouts and spring practice.

Spring workouts for the Illini haven't been finalized yet, but will likely start in late March.

Illinois will likely make Thomas available to the media once he gets settled in after classes start. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.

Appeals for immediate eligibility have been rare for the Illinois football team. One of the most publicized cases was former quarterback Jon Beutjer, who was allowed to play immediately after transferring from Iowa. Like Thomas, Beutjer was a News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year after starring in high school at Wheaton Warrenville South.

If the NCAA decides to not grant Thomas the waiver, he would have to sit out the '19 season as a redshirt. He would have two years of eligibility remaining.

Background check

Belleville News-Democrat sports editor Todd Eschman covered Thomas at East St. Louis.

Eschman said former Illini Terry Hawthorne, currently an assistant with the Flyers, is a positive influence on Thomas.

Hawthorne thought Thomas should go to Illinois after high school.

"After the state championship game, Jeff told me that himself." Eschman said. "He said he was either going (to Illinois) or Alabama."

Eschman hasn't talked to Thomas since the player left Miami. Eschman describes Thomas as "reclusive."

"He's quiet. He doesn't volunteer much to anybody," Eschman said. "He doesn't like the attention."

During East St. Louis games, Eschman noticed Thomas would be off by himself.

The Fox Sports Film documentary "89 Blocks" detailed East St. Louis' run to the Class 7A state title in 2016. Thomas was a focal point of the film. Not always in a good way.

Thomas missed practices and was forced to sit out games. Eventually, the players decided to allow Thomas to stay on the roster.

Eschman wonders about Thomas at Illinois.

"He's got the history in high school and he left Miami kind of under hush hush (circumstances)," he said.

"I'll tell you this: I pray for the kid. You want him to do well. He's not a bad guy."

Eschman thinks the combination of Lovie Smith and the East St. Louis connection at Illinois will be good for Thomas.

"He is an Illinois guy and he's got a support system there," Eschman said. "He has tremendous talent, too. He runs like the wind and has great hands."

Another asset

When he becomes eligible, Thomas figures to provide an immediate boost to Rod Smith's offense.

"He's a dynamic kid," Smith said. "We're excited about the potential of what he brings."

Smith has never seen Thomas play in person, but has watched him on tape.

"When I got here, I heard stories about how good of a football player he was," Smith said. "Out of curiosity, I went back to take a look at him."

In 2019, Smith returns four starters on the offensive line. He's got an experienced quarterback (M.J. Rivers II) and talent and depth at running back.

Receiver is the biggest question mark. The leading returnee is Ricky Smalling, who caught 33 for 406 passes this past season.

Watch Thomas on tape and you see a speedy guy who catches the ball. In a crowd.

"We've always tried to say we want to upgrade our football team," Smith said. "Wide receiver is definitely one of the positions that we feel we need to upgrade. There are a lot of positions. It's not just that position. But he definitely helps upgrade that position from a skill situation."

Thomas adds experience. He has played at a high level for two years.

"We're going to expect him to come in and try to be a leader for our guys," Smith said. "Not just for the wide receiver room, but hopefully for our football team."

Thomas is also a threat as a returner. He averaged 24.6 yards on nine kickoff returns as a sophomore at Miami and had a punt return for a touchdown against Virginia Tech.

Having Thomas with the team in the spring will help in the transition. He will have a chance to build relationships with his teammates. Always a plus.

Thomas is listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds. His size isn't a concern to Smith.

"We're just excited he wants to come back home and be a part of our program," he said.

There are strong East St. Louis connections at Illinois, both past and present.

"This place carries more familiarity with Jeff than probably other places," Smith said.

Big fans

Curry followed Thomas during his time with the Flyers and at Miami.

Now, he's got another reason to pay attention: Trinity quarterback Isaiah Williams has signed with the Illini.

Curry was happy to see Thomas join, too.

"Right away, you're going to get a guy who can blow the top off the defense," Curry said. "When you get a guy who can just run past the defense, it allows your offense to become that much better.

"I think he's going to be a great addition to them and make what they do more explosive."

National recruiting expert Tom Lemming remembers seeing Thomas as a freshman at East St. Louis. Flyers coach Darren Sunkett told him to watch his next star.

"He was right," Lemming said. "The kid was special."

Thomas fills a need at Illinois.

"As long as they can get him the ball, they're going to be in business," Lemming said. "This is one of the more creative wide receivers in the country."

Lemming won't be surprised if Thomas puts up monster numbers in the Big Ten.

"He should be the go-to guy at Illinois," Lemming said. "It's an exciting time because they are bringing in some really good ballplayers now. I'd say Illinois fans have a reason to be excited."

Lemming isn't concerned about Thomas fitting in at Illinois. Or being a problem for the coaches.

"I think he'll toe the line," Lemming said. "Lovie is a no-nonsense type of guy."