Asmussen | Jeff Thomas 'excited to get started' with Illini

Asmussen | Jeff Thomas 'excited to get started' with Illini

"I'm on my way now. I'm really excited to get started at Illinois."

That's what Jeff Thomas told me Monday afternoon while driving from his home in East St. Louis to the Illinois campus.

The star receiver is waiting on his transcripts. But contrary to rumors that circulated in recent days, he is not returning to Miami.

Was there anything to it?

"Not really," Thomas said. "It was probably because of the social media post that I had deleted off Twitter and Instagram."

The 2016 News-Gazette All-State Player of the Year from East St. Louis will begin classes soon. Maybe as early as today. He will be with the Illini for weightlifting and conditioning. He will participate in spring practices.

Thomas is all in with the Illinois program.

There are still some unknowns. Like whether Thomas will be on the field in 2019. He plans to request a waiver from the NCAA. There are no guarantees.

And what number will he wear at Illinois? He was No. 4 for the state champion Flyers. No decision yet.

"They really left it up to me," Thomas said.

Thomas was back home on Monday, talking to family and friends.

Whenever he is eligible, Thomas is expected to make an impact on Rod Smith's offense.

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

Thomas signed a Big Ten tender of financial aid with Illinois and the school announced on Dec. 21 his decision to transfer. The tender prevents a player from going another Big Ten school, but has no standing at Miami.

Plenty has changed for the Hurricanes in recent weeks. Coach Mark Richt announced his retirement after the season and was replaced by former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.

Diaz had left the school, temporarily, to become head coach at Temple. When he returned to the Hurricanes, it forced a scramble in Philadelphia. The Owls hired Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey.

You can see that college football can be a bit messy.

Talk of the town

Last week, there was talk Thomas would return to the Hurricanes. It makes sense that Miami would want him back. He is a big-play threat. You can never have too many of those guys.

In the early signing period, Miami loaded up on defense and added only one receiver, four-star Jeremiah Payton from Neptune Beach, Fla.

Dan Enos is the new Miami offensive coordinator. As of Monday afternoon, the school had yet to hire a receivers coach.

Thomas had left the team late in the season. Richt made it sound like Thomas was shown the door. Thomas disputed the Miami account on social media.

It doesn't matter how his time at Miami ended. Lovie Smith was satisfied with the situation after talking to Thomas several times on phone and in person.

Remember, Illinois made a strong push to land Thomas in 2016 and thought it had him. Former Illini and fellow East St. Louis alum Terry Hawthorne, who is on the staff with the Flyers, lobbied for Illinois.

There are other East St. Louis connections on the current Illinois team. Defensive back Stanley Green and linebacker James Knight are former Flyers. It's the kind of hometown feel Miami can't offer.

"That's perfect," Thomas said.

An offseason win

Keeping Thomas is a big deal for Lovie Smith's team. It follows the signing of a small but talented class in December.

Illinois needs to bump its 2018 win total by two to reach the postseason.

If Thomas is immediately eligible, and my guess is he will be, it increases the chance to get to six victories.

Thomas will not only help the Illini at receiver, but also on special teams. He had a punt return touchdown against Virginia Tech.

And Thomas will add to the team's swagger. That's been lacking for several seasons. Hard to be very cocky when you haven't been to a bowl since 2014.

Thomas was a winner in high school and kept winning in college.

Not a big talker, he will lead by example. I expect him to fit in well with his new teammates.

Thomas has a second chance at college football. At a place he knows well. The support system, both on campus and in the area, will help him with the transition.

Lovie Smith talks all the time about improving the talent on his team.

He just did.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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