Earnest Thomas Has Bright Future At SAM

The Fighting Illini football team needs to replace starting SAM linebacker Nathan Bussey this year. While his replacements are young, they are talented and have potential to fill the gap well. One who is battling for playing time is redshirt freshman Earnest Thomas.

Earnest Thomas redshirted at Illinois last year. The Orchard Park, Michigan, product realized the benefits of sitting out his first year.

"I enjoyed it. It gave me a chance to learn the defense a lot better. I played behind Nate Bussey, and I learned how he and the other guys on the team play with intensity. I learned the speed of the game and the system.

"Everybody wants to play, but it's always good when we can sit down and learn. Now when I come out here, I'm not just thinking, I'm reacting because I have a year in the system already. Now I know it, and I'm capitalizing on that."

The St. Mary's graduate played a role in high school similar to the hybrid linebacker/defensive back SAM position with the Illini. That made the transition to college football easier.

"No sir, it hasn't been that difficult an adjustment at all. Coaches are looking for me to work hard every day and make sure I learn the plays, so I know what I'm doing when I get out there. When my name is called, I can go out there and perform."

However, winter conditioning required a major adjustment.

"Yes sir. The problem is we've got that, then school, then learning the plays. It's all that at once. We're used to working out and playing football. But when you've got all that at once, you're on a college campus and you've got to be disciplined. That's the biggest thing."

Regardless, Thomas proved his value by being one of those who stood out during winter training.

"Yes sir. I gained a little weight, got a little stronger, got a little faster. All that's good. When you're redshirting, you don't have to worry about the things the freshmen who are playing are worried about. You can just focus on grades and getting bigger, stronger, faster. When the time comes, you're ready to play."

Ashante Williams is presently running first team at SAM, but Thomas is providing stiff competition.

"It feels good. It's fun to come out here after my redshirt year and compete. You're off the scout team, and you're getting a chance to show what you can do. Get ready for the season and get ready to play."

Thomas is proving to be a true student of the game. He thrives on it.

"Just getting into the playbook and learning the plays and knowing the game. Coach (Ron) Zook keeps telling us, if you know the game you can just react. There's no time to think out there, you just react. If you can just react, you can play much faster, on the defensive side of the ball especially. That's probably my best asset, knowing the defense."

Surprisingly, he also lists study as that which he wants to improve the most.

"I want to work on continuing to learn the playbook, make sure I know what I'm doing. As Coach said, just trying to be perfect every practice. Other than that, just getting in the weight room and getting bigger, stronger, faster. It's spring, but it's still off season."

Thomas is still pondering a college major.

"Right now I'm undecided, but I'm thinking about going into Communications or Journalism, something along those lines."

Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning isn't ready to go out on a limb regarding Thomas, but he has seen enough potential in the young man that he hasn't moved anyone there to bolster the position.

"He's doing all right. He's like a lot of the freshmen, feeling their way through and getting better every day."

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