Marian Catholic coach Sean Mele breaks down Illini QB commit Cam Thomas

Sean Mele has a tough task ahead of him as he takes over as head coach at Marian Catholic, which has won just five games over the past four seasons in a loaded East Suburban Catholic League. But Mele at least has one great piece to start a program turnaround: Illinois quarterback commit Cam Thomas. Mele talks with Illini Inquirer about his initial impressions of Thomas and focus for improvement for his senior season.

You got a pretty good quarterback there in Cam Thomas. What are your initial impressions?

Sean Mele: "This is my first season, so I've just seen him on film from last season. I feel like he's made such tremendous improvement, especially in the areas of accuracy and footwork from the end of the season last year from October through I'd even say March. The improvements I've seen in March and when he threw for a lot of college coaches who came to campus were his accuracy. Obviously his arm strength has always been good, but his accuracy and footwork has really improved tremendously. When I watched film on him, because that's all I had to go off at this point, it was, 'OK, he's got to improve his accuracy a little bit. He's got to get that accuracy down a little bit.' But as I watched the improvement he's made, those are two of things he's really made strides with, and I think those are two of the things that really put him over the top as well. I think with Illinois, the arm strength and athleticism was always there, but the accuracy and the touch and the footwork, I think really put him over the top."

Watching the film, obviously he had to run a little for his life. What do you think of how he handled playing in a ridiculously good conference and not having as much talent around him?

Mele: "I think he was in a situation last year where he found himself, like you said, under pressure a lot. I honestly think that if he were on a better team last year, that he would have been given a lot more attention. I know there's a lot of doubters out there, like 'Why would Illinois sign this kid?' or whatever the case may be, whatever their reason may be for that. But if you look at him in a controlled setting, where he has protection and he can run play-action, he can get out on the perimeter and he can do things out of three-step drop and one-step drop, I think he's a tremendous prospect. Having to be the guy last year, he handled it as good as you can. Eventually, you get smashed enough time, it starts to wear on you a little bit. But everything I can gather from watching him on film and seeing him as a person and being with a good person these last six months, I saw a kid with a good head on his shoulders who realizes things are going to only get better from here. If he sticks it out and does what he's supposed to do, he's got a great career ahead of him."

So what are your expectations for him to take that next step? What are you looking for out of him as a senior?

Mele: "Well, number one, I'm looking for him to be a leader. I think he's always been thrust into that leadership role. I think right now it's more natural for him as a senior. I need him to lead this team. I need him to get us to the point where we can be someone that people in the conference respect again. I think people look at our name on the schedule now and they automatically put a 'W' next to it, and honestly our whole team knows that. That's something that needs to change, and honestly it starts with him. "It starts with his attitude in terms of positive attitude and leading by example, and obviously playing well. I'm not concerned about the way he's going to play. I'm truly not concerned about anything with him, but I'm not going to be concerned about the way he plays. My concern is that is he going to put himself in a position to lead by example and be the guy on the team and kind of that beacon that everyone on our team looks to. He's perfectly capable of that, and I expect him to do that."

When you become an Illinois commit, you get a target on your back. Do you think Cam is ready for that?

Mele: "He does. We'd had a couple 7-on-7s already this year, and there were a couple throws that weren't exactly on target and a couple kids on the other team were kind of hootin' and hollerin' at him. He brushes that stuff off. But, yeah, absolutely. Once you accept that Division I offer, everybody expects you to be a Division I player. That's the kind of pressure that's on you, and you create that pressure, but you also got to learn how to handle it, and I think Cam has the tools to do that."

As an in-state coach, what do you make of Lovie Smith at Illinois and what do you think he can accomplish?

Mele: "I thought it was a home run for Illinois, I'll be honest with you. Being a Chicago guy, maybe it's more so for people who were Bears fans. He took them to the Super Bowl and did a lot of great things. I feel it was a great hire. I know they needed to make a spark. They needed to say, 'Hey, look at us,' and I think they did a good job. Obviously, he has the coaching ability and the personality to turn it around. I was very impressed by the hire."

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