All Smiles at the Star

A move to Star has former safety Earnest Thomas smiling big this spring.

CHAMPAIGN — It seems Earnest Thomas has been all smiles this spring.

The rising senior was moved from safety to Star a week prior to spring drills, a move that has him putting off plenty of positivity.

"You can probably ask everybody on the team, I enjoy that position," Thomas said. "It's reckless abandon over there. You can really just go, read and react."

The Orchard Lake, Mich. native is the team's leading returning tackler after recording 101 stops and three forced fumbles last season.

Thomas was included in an offseason effort by coordinator Tim Banks and staff to re-mix and re-match defenders to positions to find a winning combination.

Though Thomas has 21 starts to his credit at safety, his skill set was deemed more useful at Star, a linebacker/safety hybrid. Coach Al Seamonson is now in charge of Thomas and says the goal is to find the best 11 players to employ, regardless of past position experience.

"We're hoping to do that. In some way or form we've got to find a way to get our best players, the guys with speed and athleticism on the field playing together," Seamonson said. "If that's a guy playing out of position because he's more athletic, we're going to go with putting the best speed out there that can get the job done in terms of tackling in space."

Two things had to be clear before Thomas was moved. First, could he handle the spot? Since he originally manned the Star position upon arriving at Illinois, Thomas was familiar with it. And his time at safety had it's ups and downs. In fact, Thomas asked the coaches last season if he could play Star instead. The timing wasn't right.

"Safeties in our defense compared to Star — Star is more reaction," Thomas said. "It's not as slow paced. At safety you have to be a lot more patient at times. At Star it's just reacting, reading and going. Since I came into college, that was one of my strong points."

The second caveat -- could the safety position withstand losing him? Zane Petty and Taylor Barton split time opposite Thomas in 2013. The staff felt comfortable with those two running with the No. 1 defense.

So, now Thomas is closer to the ball. He'll help to stop the run and be included in blitz packages to pressure the quarterback. His coverage duties will include the slot receiver and potentially tight ends and running backs. Being close to the line of scrimmage though is why Thomas is most excited.

"In our defense it's a position where you can really make a lot of plays at," he said. "It's a key position in our defense."

Thomas' second stint at Star feels different than his first. That's mostly due to his class standing and experience at safety. He used the last two seasons to grow physically, but his view on the field helped him learn the entire defense.

"When I was first coming in and playing Star I didn't understand the defense and concepts as much," he said. "When I went to safety I started to get a feel for the route concepts, what the guys were looking for on offense. Now all of that stuff, I know it like it's the back of my hand. Now me playing Star after safety, it's really like night and day as far as earlier in my career."

That's why Thomas has a happy face these days. It's that positive attitude that helped make the switch possible as the Illini work to improve as an overall defensive unit.

Banks says he appreciates the entire scope of what Thomas provides.

"He's always that way, good, bad or indifferent, he's always smiling," Banks said.

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