Ian Thomas came to Illinois from DeMatha Catholic High School in Maryland as an undersized middle linebacker. Now a sturdy 6'-0", 225, Thomas has the experience and confidence to be a leader among the linebacker corps.
His willingness to work hard is demonstrated by his abilities in the weight room, especially the bench press.
"I got close to 500 pounds," Thomas says. "I might hit 500 before the season starts. I never really maxed out, but I did 465 a couple times. I did 40 reps at 225. I could have went for more, but I didn't want to die myself out."
Ian is now playing the strongside linebacker position (SAM), and it has taken time to learn the position. He began to put it all together late last season.
"Yeah, the more reps I get the better I get. I'm just trying to do more reps and do everything right. I'm thinking a lot less. I can see and diagnose a play real fast, and then I can react."
Thomas is happy to be a starter regardless of the position. But he has not yet given up on the idea of playing in the middle again.
"Wherever I can help my team. I like to play MIKE, and I might get my chance to play at the MIKE before it's over. But we're trying to go to the top."
The SAM linebacker covers the tight end on passing plays, but he is often removed for a nickel back on passing downs, especially against spread teams. Thomas had the reputation coming in as a quality pass defender, so that part of his game is less useful at the SAM. But he made an outstanding play to break up a pass in the end zone during one spring scrimmage.
"The SAM doesn't get to cover that much. The SAM goes out on a lot of plays. But when I get my chance, I just try to do what I've got to do, play my responsibility."
With maturity also comes a chance for leadership. Ian is serving as an eloquent spokesman for the defense.
"We just want to be real technically sound. Make as few mistakes as possible. Come out and play with emotion, play fast. That's what defense is all about, playing with emotion and playing fast."
That emotion was exemplified the last two weeks of spring ball as the defense rose up and applied tremendous intensity and pressure to an offense that had been dominant up to then.
"We felt like we didn't play as good as we could in Chicago (Oak Park), and we tried to step it up a little more. We've still got a lot to work on, and we're just gonna get better and better."
With the increased intensity, some minor skirmishes broke out between offensive and defensive players. Thomas sees that as a good thing.
"It's always fun when you compete. We got into some little scuffles, but it's all fun, it's a lot of love. We just make each other better, and we're gonna just keep on getting better."
Ian Thomas has found ways of compensating for his lack of height. A successful boxer in his youth, he brings that same mentality to football.
"I never feel like size really matters. I've always been undersized, ever since I was little. But I always played big. I compare to a small pit bull. He fights big."