A product of DeMatha Catholic out of Maryland, Thomas was considered the sleeper of the 2007 recruiting class. But shoulder surgery prior to fall enrollment forced him to redshirt his freshman year. Illini coaches were unaware of the injury.
"I had gotten cleared at home," explains Thomas, "but they (Illinois doctors) weren't satisfied with that. I understand why because it's not safe to just go out there and play when you're still injured.
"I most likely would have played last year, but because they didn't know the severity of my shoulder and how far I came with the rehab, they didn't let me play. They just wanted to give it time to heal. It was frustrating, but I wasn't mad because I wanted to learn. It was hard, but I knew it was best for me."
Ian took advantage of his redshirt to learn from some quality upperclassmen.
"I would just sit back and watch the more experienced linebackers. Of course, J. Leman since I played middle last year. All the linebackers, Brit, Antonio Steele, all of them helped me out. I learned a lot from them, and I'm just trying to go out there now and do what I learned and keep learning."
Thomas enjoyed the Rose Bowl trip, but it made him desire his own bowl opportunities.
Oh, It definitely got me hungry. Just sitting and watching everybody make plays makes me want to get out there and make up for what I couldn't do last year. I'm just hungry and ready to play."
Ian Thomas is something of a workout warrior, so he excelled in the demanding winter conditioning drills.
"It was good. It was real intense. They're really preparing us well for the season. I couldn't have asked for any more conditioning."
The 6'-0", 223 pound Thomas is one of the strongest players on the team.
"I'm probably maxing out at 450 pounds (in the bench press). I had the shoulder problem when I came in, so I probably came in not quite at 400."
Athletes who combine great strength with speed and maneuverability are rare. The best linebackers are strong enough to take on blocks from linemen and tight ends yet fast enough to cover speedy receivers. Ian has the potential to be that type of linebacker.
"They moved me from the middle to the SAM backer. I really like it more because I get to cover a little more. I haven't covered in awhile, and I like that. I like to run around. They know I can run, so I think SAM will most likely be a good move for me. I don't mind (taking on big tight ends), I'm strong enough to handle them."
More than anything, it is his versatility that will get him on the field early and often this fall.
"I'm learning the SAM right now to get that down pat, but they also talked about learning the middle. They don't know which one yet. I think I might move to the MIKE for the nickel."
The Sports Management major is ambitious and excited about the openings at linebacker.
"Definitely, that's why I came. I want to make a difference, and that's what I plan on doing."