Ian Thomas Healthy, Back Where He Belongs

The Fighting Illini football team's senior class is small in numbers this year, but most have had extensive experience and will be leaders this fall. One who often gets overlooked in these discussions is fifth year senior linebacker Ian Thomas. Back at a familiar position, Thomas hopes to make his final season his best one.

Ian Thomas is a middle linebacker who played weakside last year as Martez Wilson took on that role. The third round NFL draftee has now moved on, and opportunity shines again on Thomas.

"It feels great. I'm real comfortable. Sideline to sideline, it just feels good to be there."

Thomas has had his share of injuries as well. He played at less than full strength much of last season, and his recovery was slowed over the winter.

"I had a high ankle sprain. It took me a long time to get healthy, but I'm getting back. They've just been wanting me to ease into it. The first time I ran was the beginning of spring, so just easing back into it is starting to feel good."

According to his position coach and defensive coordinator Vic Koenning, Thomas is finally healthy, although there was more to it than just one high ankle sprain.

"I think so, but he's got that, and then he's got his other ankle and a little groin issue last year. So we're trying not to burn him out."

At least he's no longer wearing a shoulder harness, allowing him more freedom of movement with his upper body. He realizes this is his last year as an Illinois football player, and he's grateful for his opportunity.

"Every day I feel like, since this is my last spring and fall, I've got to enjoy every practice, just happy to be here."

The Maryland native appreciates Koenning's coaching.

"He teaches us little things I never would have known unless he was my coach. I'm very grateful that he's putting these skills in me, just to make me a better player."

There's still much that can be improved, and Thomas is working to perfect techniques.

"I'm just working on small things like footwork. Anything to let me get to the ball quicker."

Koenning didn't want to overwork Thomas this spring. He needs him full speed by fall, and he is trying to build depth.

"He's kind of an old warrior. He's kind of like the Celtics are right now. Ian's been through the wars, and we know he can play football. We're trying to get him polished up, but we're also trying to get 8 (Brandon Denmark) ready. Ian's gonna be fine."

Denmark was his only backup during spring ball. Thomas says he's making progress.

"This is his first season, and he's coming along well. He's getting a lot of reps. He's actually getting some of my reps to give him some experience."

The move of Craig Wilson to defensive tackle had a direct impact on Thomas, who plays behind him.

"Big Craig is kind of too good sometimes. He drives people off the ball. I've just got to adjust to how big the holes are."

The 6'-0", 230 pounder is pleased with the progress of the Illini defense.

"The defense is getting better every day. Everyone is getting their assignments down, people are playing hard. When we execute, we win every down. But when we don't the offense wins. So we come out and execute to get better."

Thomas feels the linebacker corps will be mobile enough to help the pass defense as well as run defense.

"We've got a lot of guys who can cover very well. We're gonna be very confident on third downs to stop the pass and be able to stop the run."

The Communications major sees the Texas Bowl triumph as a springboard to an even better year in 2011.

"Oh yeah. We want to roll that nice win over to the season. This spring is a lot better than last spring, so we're just trying to bump up everything. We want camp to be a lot better. Just make everything better. I think we're going to be good."

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