When Lovie Smith and his coaching staff were brought in to help revive the tattered name of Illinois football, their obvious focus was on bringing in the very best recruits in the state, region and country. With recruiting season kicking into high gear, a good deal of their attention is zeroed in on wide receiver Jeff Thomas from East St. Louis High School.
Thomas’ size, 5’10” and 165 pounds, isn’t necessarily what recruiters salivate over. However, his 4.38 time in the 40 stamps him as a potential game-breaker and his production in high school was enough to help him win All-American accolades. That meant earning a coveted spot in the New Year’s Day All-Star game to be held in Orlando, Florida.
Long before that, Thomas was sought after by some of the top teams in the country, including perennial national championship contender Alabama. As the process has gone on, the Crimson Tide now finds itself locked in a ferocious battle with only the Illini for Thomas’ services beginning next season.
Just the fact that Smith has been able to emerge from the usual Big Ten scrum and hold off powerhouses like Ohio State and Michigan is an indication that his message is getting through to recruits. If he’s able to best Nick Saban in this recruiting battle, things could get interesting in Champaign in the years ahead.
That’s because Thomas has already shown a penchant for delivering in the clutch. Earlier this month, he snagged seven passes for 190 yards and caught the game-winning touchdown with three seconds left to send his school into the state quarterfinals.
Illinois has a unique leg up in this battle with Alabama due to the fact that one of the assistant coaches on East St. Louis’ staff is Terry Hawthorne, a former Illini standout. Having someone who can instill on a regular basis on what it’s like to play in Champaign is invaluable and a rare asset. An Illinois football player’s hometown is an average 521 miles away, while Alabama’s is 380 miles. Thomas lives around 174 miles away from the University of Illinois and close to 500 miles away from Tuscaloosa.
Smith has already locked up another outstanding wide receiver, Carmoni Green, from the football hotbed of Miami. That hasn’t lessened the coach’s interest in bringing in Thomas, since the prospect of having two dangerous weapons in opposing secondaries offers visions of scoreboards lighting up.
Those two players have the talent to immediately start once they reach campus, with Malik Turner the only returning Illinois receiver that could challenge them. Top recruits fully expect to play when they sign and Smith appears ready to offer Smith and Green that opportunity.
Using Thomas as one building block toward can make the Illini a contender for the Big Ten title and beyond and could serve as a sturdy cornerstone for the future. That allows Smith to build on that recruiting success to establish a steady pipeline of quality talent.
Illinois football took a major hit in recruiting when the scandalous revelations of former head coach Tim Beckman were revealed. Signing Thomas would go a long way toward erasing the ugly memories that resulted.