"Things happened and I had to play young, before I was really ready to take the leadership role that I had to take. But I've come a long way. I've matured a lot, and I have a lot more experience now. I'm ready to lead the defense."
He is also healthy for a change. Shoulder and groin issues, as well as assorted other bumps and bruises, reduced his effectiveness last season and forced him to sit out part of spring ball. Illini fullback Jay Prosch gave him a hurting in Camp Rantoul, but all those problems are now behind him.
"I feel like I can give it my all now. It's my last go-round. It feels good to be healthy after some tough times in the past, fighting through little nicks and stuff. But I'm 100% now."
There were concerns preseason whether the Illini could compensate for departed defenders. Thomas says that motivated other squad members to step up, including himself.
"We've just needed to find guys to step up and make plays like they did. I think we've got guys that can do that. The coaches think I'm the type of player that can pick up the defense and do my assignments well. I just try to be where they want me to be."
Thomas is the only upperclassmen among the inside linebackers. He is showing the way for an eager, talented group of youngsters including sophomore Jonathan Brown, redshirt freshman Houston Bates and freshmen Ralph Cooper and Henry Dickinson.
"We're looking real good. The young guys are picking up the defense real fast. We learned a lot in the spring, so we came in real sharp.
"Surprisingly, the younger guys are coming along very quick. They're picking up the defense very fast, and they have very few missed assignments. It's good that they're bringing in guys that are smart football players.
"The two freshmen are really the guys I'm talking about. They are real sharp. They're picking up the defense faster than we did."
The Illinois defense is more complicated and harder to predict after a year in defensive coordinator Vic Koenning's system. Thomas is excited about the possibilities.
"Since we have a year under our belt, Coach is gonna be a little more comfortable putting in a lot more plays and using them during the season. Last year, people really couldn't hold all the plays, and we had to throw some stuff out. Coach is giving us a lot more responsibility and feeling a lot more comfortable with us this year."
The Illini are much more aggressive under Koenning. Thomas prefers it that way.
"It's a lot more fun because it has the offense on its heels. They're not really sure what's going on. It's better that way."
Illini head coach Ron Zook is pleased with his veteran MIKE linebacker.
"Obviously, he needs to be a leader in there, and he is an energy guy in there too. A lot of times, the young guys are just worried about getting back into the huddle. He's a guy with experience, a guy who knows what to do. He's thinking down and distance, he's thinking situation. He's helping them with the energy they need to have also."
Because of his physical setbacks, it has taken Thomas awhile to scrape off the rust and play to his potential. But Zook says he played his best game against Arizona State.
"No question. You know, Ian missed a lot of time in camp and, I don't care what level - high school, college or the National Football League - if you don't practice, it's hard to play at the level that you're capable of playing at.
"He was down a little bit after the first game, and I talked to him. I said, `Ian, you've just got to play into - not really playing in shape, he was in shape - but play in because of the speed of the game and everything.' But there's no question that big plays are going to keep happening for him because he's a high-energy guy that plays with a motor."
Thomas hopes to make his final season his best. If so, the Illini will have a successful season.