Asmussen | Illini move on from Jeff Thomas

Asmussen | Illini move on from Jeff Thomas

I am an optimist by nature. With a great faith in people.

So, when someone tells me, say, "I'm on my way to play football at Illinois," I tend to believe them.

That's what happened late Monday afternoon, when I talked to receiver Jeff Thomas. He was on his way to Champaign and said he was excited about getting started with Lovie Smith's program.

Until he wasn't.

Something happened between Monday afternoon and Tuesday night to convince Thomas not to make the switch. He is going back to Miami, where he will compete as a junior this season.

I have reached out to Thomas, but don't expect to hear back from him any time soon.

Someday, maybe 10 years from now, I will talk to Thomas and he will tell me what happened. (Remember, I'm an optimist.)

For now, all we have are guesses. Albeit the educated variety.

There are couple of things you need to know. First, how this all got started.

Thomas reached out to Illinois during the fall, telling the coaches he wanted to come home. St. Louis doesn't have a Division I college team, so that meant back to Illinois, a school that tried hard to land him after his standout career at East St. Louis.

Knowing what they know now, the coaches would have been better off had Thomas never called. Instead, he got their hopes up — and the hopes of the fans — and they were left with an empty locker.

During my chat with Thomas on Monday, I asked him about what number he wanted to wear at Illinois. He didn't have an answer, but said the coaches were leaving it up to him. Didn't sound like a guy about to change his plans.

Thomas was in Champaign on Tuesday. He spent hours in the coaches offices. He talked to Lovie Smith and others on the staff. He got the ball rolling to start his Illini career.

The academic side was moving forward, too. Illinois had received his transcripts from Miami and it appeared he would be admitted for classes this semester.

When Thomas left the offices, all was well. The Illinois staff expected him to be a part of the team. Another weapon on offense and special teams. A game-changer.

One explanation

My guess is the Miami staff looked at its projected roster for 2019 and said "We sure could use another quality receiver."

The Hurricanes added one during the December signing period. They knew all about Thomas. Having him back on offense will be a plus.

New coach Manny Diaz, the former defensive coordinator, understands the player's talent. Thomas went against Diaz's defense every day in practice.

Under former coach Mark Richt, Thomas left/got kicked off the team before the end of the 2018 season. He wasn't with the Hurricanes at the Pinstripe Bowl in late Decemeber. He had already made his commitment to transfer to Illinois and stayed home in East St. Louis.

Thomas had been released from his scholarship at Miami and was free to pursue other options.

He planned to request a waiver from the NCAA to become immediately eligible at Illinois. In recent years, the organization has been much more player-friendly, so my guess is he would have been granted the waiver.

But there were no guarantees. There was a chance the NCAA would say "you have to sit out 2019 at Illinois."

My guess is the Miami staff hammered that point with Thomas. Telling him he wouldn't be able to play in the Big Ten this season and would basically waste the year.

Or ... he could return to Miami and spend the upcoming season on the field.

It worked. On Aug. 31 at Orlando's Camping World Stadium, Thomas is scheduled to open the season against Florida.

The Hurricanes play at North Carolina in the second week and have their first home game Sept. 14 against Bethune-Cookman.

The Miami coaches might have also mentioned Illinois' record in recent seasons (no bowl since 2014) and the unsettled quarterback situation in Champaign. Incoming freshman Isaiah Williams will compete with three returning sophomores.

Miami brings back sophomore-to-be N'Kosi Perry, who completed 51 percent of his passes as a rookie. The school is also hoping to have former Ohio State quarterback Tate Martell on the field in 2019. The one-time hotshot prospect announced his move to Miami late Tuesday night, about an hour after Thomas' Instagram post indicated he would return to Miami, and will seek a waiver to play right away. If it would have worked for Thomas at Illinois, it should work for Martell at Miami.

Moving on

Illinois is done with Thomas. If the player called today and said "I want to come home," it would be a polite "No thanks."

What's the old saying: Fool me twice, don't let the door hit you on the way out of the building. Or something like that.

Lovie Smith isn't the type to pitch a fit when something doesn't go his way. You will never see him on the sidelines throwing his jacket after a bad call. He's not a screamer. Calm and cool.

But the decision by Thomas had to hurt. Illinois was ready and willing to help Thomas succeed on the field, in the classroom and in life. It offered the player a chance to be close to home and have his family make a short drive to games.

Instead, he is 1,214 miles from East St. Louis, playing for a new head coach and new coordinator (Dan Enos).

Miami has some advantages. Like the weather. And the recent success in football.

If it works the way I expect, Thomas will have one more season with Miami. Then, he will try the NFL.Unless he changes his mind again.

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

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