Thomas Handling Heavy Reps

With a couple other players at his position out for the time being, senior Star LB Earnest Thomas knows he has a lot on his plate, and he's okay with that.

Earnest Thomas brings a lot of experience to the Illinois defense. As a leader, he also holds himself and his defensive unit to a higher standard now.

"It's a team game, and we just have to go back and look at the drawing board now to see what we can do better," he said.

One of the main changes for Thomas this season is from the safety to the Star position. A SAM linebacker at the onset of his Illinois career, Thomas feels natural at the Star position now and the adjustment was fine.

"It was fine," Thomas said. "I didn't feel a huge difference from safety. I've had a chance to play this position a bit earlier in my career. I made the move in the spring so I adjusted fine."

Thomas didn't see as many runs come to his side as the game progressed, but he made his mark on the game and forced plays to the other side of the formation.

"They were trying to run to the field side earlier in the game," he said. "We had a couple big plays to slow that down, and they started running more to the boundary. I'm lined up on the field side, so I really didn't get a chance as the game went on to get into the boundary action as much."

As the game went on, the defensive front seven started to get more pressure into the Youngstown State backfield. Thomas knows that the defense needs to maintain that pressure to control the line of scrimmage.

"It was big (getting more pressure)," Thomas said. "We've been preaching all spring and summer that it all starts up front. They got better as the game went on getting pressure and causing disruption. They were able to help us out a lot."

Illinois rotated several linebackers in and out of the game. With Mike Svetina sidelined with an injury, T.J. Neal, Ralph Cooper, Lakeith Walls, and Mason Monheim all took reps at inside linebacker providing several different looks and keeping the group more fresh throughout the game.

"I think for the most part, we always preach that everybody needs to be ready when their number is called," Thomas said. "Those guys did a good job stepping in when they got called in. We just need to make sure we don't have any drop off when one guy comes in to the next. I think we did fine though. We'll check out the film and execute better next week."

With a couple of the other Star linebackers like B.J. Bello and Eric Finney sidelined, Thomas took a lot of reps in Saturday's game. But Thomas feels that his conditioning is at a point where he can handle the extra workload.

"Well, I probably played the 2nd most reps on the team last year, so I'm used to it," he said. "Since I've been starting here, I'm used to playing the entire game. I just need to make sure I'm in shape each week and keep my conditioning up. Hopefully the offense can hold the ball a little longer for us and we can get a little more rest."

Until late in the game, the Illini held Youngstown State out of the endzone. And while Thomas noted that the defensive unit did hold to their "bend don't break" motto for the most part, he knows by experience that the defense needs to start getting takeaways.

"We talk about bending but not breaking. We did that for the most part, but we have a couple things to correct here and there," he said. "We did that and kept our heads high. We never let the moment get too big and stayed together as a team. That will be important heading down the road."

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