Little Man Thomas Getting His Chances

Many Illini football players have contributed to this successful season, and each has an intersting story to tell. But if you are looking for one player who has risen farther and faster from total obscurity to help the team, it has to be freshman cornerback Marcus "Miami" Thomas.

Marcus, who was given the nickname "Miami" after moving to Chicago from Miami, Florida, was not expected to play this year due to recent shoulder surgery.

"It was a football injury before my senior year at Morgan Park," explains Thomas. "I played the whole season on it. I waited because I thought it was better, but they told me it was serious so I had the surgery April 30th."

It usually takes players nearly a year to recover from shoulder surgery and regain their lost strength because they can't lift weights during convalescence. And Marcus was extremely slender, so it was assumed he would need a redshirt year to develop physically and add weight. But Thomas is the exception to the rule.

"I wasn't cleared during summer camp. I didn't do any contact all of summer camp, and I didn't do any of the scrimmages. So I thought I was a lot behind. I didn't get cleared physically until September 1st, the first game of the season. It's just been getting better ever since.

"Right now, I'd say I'm about 95%. Sometimes I feel little tweaks and stuff, little small stuff, but not too bad. I'm probably a little bit stronger than I was before. The weight room is going a lot better. When I got here, I couldn't even lift weights like I wanted to. But now I'm back to normal."

No, better than normal. Besides his rapid recovery from surgery, he has also added weight to withstand the rigors of Big Ten play.

"I weigh 174 right now. I've gained 20 pounds since high school. I was 154 coming in, so maturing, eating and lifting as much as I do, taking the weight room seriously as I do has paid off."

Thomas realized the necessity of weight and strength gain while watching the Illini's spring scrimmage at Chicago St. Rita High School, just a short ride from his home.

"When I saw the guys, I said, 'Man, these guys are big!' I still weighed 150 at the time, so that was incentive for me to gain more weight. Hopefully, I'll be up to 185 by next year. That's my goal."

Even though Marcus was highly rated out of Morgan Park High School in Chicago, listed as one of the top 50 cornerbacks nationally by one recruiting service, he appeared to have zero confidence at the beginning of fall practice. Now, he stands tall and moves with the confidence that comes from gaining the coaches' trust.

"When coach says things about me, like saying I have the potential to be a great player, it feels good. When I came into the season, I figured I would redshirt because of my shoulder. So I was down. Football is something I love to do. Once I got a chance to show what I could do, it boosts your confidence up. You definitely need confidence at defensive back."

"Miami" saw his first action in the Syracuse and Indiana games. And he serves as one of the breakers on the punt return team. It is his job to slow the outside gunners trying to catch the punt returner before he can get started. Thomas' work at cornerback has now made him the first replacement for Illinois' cornerback starters.

"Right now, I'm rotating with Dere (Hicks). When Vontae (Davis) gets tired, Dere goes in for Vontae and I go in for Dere. I play on both sides."

Marcus is a quick, hard-hitting corner, but he is also intelligent. He has combined smarts with hard work to see the field quicker.

"Just watching, getting mental reps, really helps. Watching the Michigan receivers from the sideline and on tape, watching what they do, I could call out some of the plays. Watching tape really helps me on the field."

Playing time feels good to Marcus. "At first, it took some time to learn the defense. Once I got the hang of the defense, it felt easy for me. I felt like going out on the field. I see I'm going to move into the rotation. It feels good to be playing as a freshman."

Marcus Thomas is a kinesiology major who wants to become a physical therapist, something he decided after undergoing therapy for his shoulder surgery. He also wants to continue a pipeline to Morgan Park started by his teammate and friend Chris James.

Illini coaches call him "Miami", and that is the name on his locker. Call him whatever you will, he has a bright future at Illinois. Marcus "Miami" Thomas has overcome major odds to play a valuable role on this year's Illini football team, and the best is yet to come.

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