Miami Thomas has endured two ACL surgeries and two shoulder surgeries since his exciting freshman season at Illinois. He tried to come back last year, but his gimpy knees wouldn't cooperate. Finally, this spring he began to feel like his old self.
"It's back. It took me awhile to get the confidence in myself. It took me to second week of spring to know, 'I could make that play. I can break on the ball.' Once I started breaking on the ball, I was like, 'Man that felt good!'"
Thomas normally wears a perpetual smile, as if he knows something others don't. That has been missing through his long months and years of rehabilitation. It was good to see him smiling again this spring.
"Oh yeah, the confidence is the biggest key. I'm one of those players that has all the confidence in the world. But it's different when you have two ACL's and have confidence jumping. It's confidence in my ability, it's confidence in my jumping, it's confidence in my breaking and pressing. I feel good."
Thomas has added muscle mass to his slender frame, also helping his confidence.
"I weigh 178. A lot of it is in my legs. For two years, I lost a lot of leg strength. Back to back knee injuries, it was kind of tough."
Speaking after the Spring Game, the Chicago Morgan Park product was excited to be playing football again.
"I felt good today. That was my first game in 3 years. The first or second play today, it was a cover three and I broke up the hitch. That was where I had to step and drive with the knee I had my last ACL on. I broke on it, and it felt good. I feel like I have my quickness back."
His Spring Game interception brought out his playful trash talking.
"Yeah. I was doing a lot of talking in the locker room. It was a good one. It definitely gave me some confidence. I've been getting more reps, Coach has been trusting me with more reps. This shows I can still play. I'm just trying to prove to Coach they can trust me."
There have been a number of changes in coaching and defensive philosophy since Thomas was an eager freshman. He is still trying to catch up.
"My freshman year, I played with Coach (Curt) Mallory, and I was able to make more plays. Just being an athlete and react. But then I got hurt, and Coach Vic comes in. So I'm kind of behind. This is my fifth year but my second spring game.
"Every time I think I figure out what the defensive coordinator wants, then I'm hurt. This is the most I've been out there since freshman year, and it feels good.
"Just making it through 6:00 am workouts feels good. Making it through winter workouts feels good, and making it through spring ball. So hopefully I can keep going, get through the summer and get through the season. That's my main goal."
Thomas has one more problem to overcome. A natural cornerback with great instincts and smarts, he knows what his opponents are doing. That can be a blessing, but it sometimes interferes with team needs.
"My knowledge of the game is an 'A' I would say. People know it. I called out plays on the field today. The offense was getting mad, 'You always know the plays.' That kind of hurts me sometimes. I kind of react more to what's going on than being in the defense. I think I just need to incorporate both of them."
Staying disciplined is required for any good defense. Every player must mesh his role with team needs. Going off on your own may give you some interception opportunities, but a failure to play your expected role can damage the team if you don't make the play. Thomas knows what he must improve.
"I'd say the film room. Just being more disciplined instead of trying to make plays all the time. Just getting more into the defense. Before I was just used to making plays for the team. I think that's one thing I need to work on over the summer."
Thomas appreciates the coaching he's receiving from new secondary coach Mike Gillhamer.
"I love Coach Gillhamer. He tells you the way it is. He's not gonna sugar coat anything. I feel like he's a real technician. He wants you to work on technique.
"That's one thing that got a lot better with him. For me and all the dbs. All the dbs are a lot better this year because of the technique. We all have the ability; he demands technique all the time."
Illinois head coach Ron Zook holds out hope Thomas can still make a positive contribution.
"Miami's still got a lot to improve. He's had a good spring. He's got to continue to be consistent. The thing about playing in the secondary, is consistency. You can't play one play and then take one off.
"I thought he made progress. Coach Gillhamer's done a great job with him. If he continues to do the same things, he's got a chance to help us."
At this point, a chance is all Thomas can hope to receive. If he can stay healthy and mesh his natural gifts with team needs, he can still see his dreams come to fruition.