Through the first two games, redshirt sophomore linebacker Ian Thomas was the leading tackler for the Illinois football team with 17. Listed as a strongside (SAM) linebacker, Thomas also played extensively at middle (MIKE) linebacker in passing situations when the Illini preferred a nickel defense.
Thomas has been coming into his own, but he now has the additional burden of replacing the leadership and experience of junior linebacker Martez Wilson. Fortunately, Thomas is a workout warrior who loves football and is confident of his abilities.
In fact, Thomas is one of the top 2-3 strongest players on the Illini team this year. He stretches his practice jersey to the max with his rippling musculature. He doesn't shy from hard work.
"We're working hard, but we do what we have to do to prepare."
As for his strength training, he has a simple explanation.
"Yeah, I'm trying to build myself into the player they want me to be. I'm doing hard work, and you just grow and get better."
The Maryland athlete began to impress the coaches late last season, made a leap forward in the spring and came into fall camp as a much improved performer. His confidence is now soaring.
"I'm more and more locked in. I'm starting to be somewhat of a vet, using the experience I've got. I feel a lot more comfortable."
Thomas was a middle linebacker in high school and began his college career there. He was moved to the SAM linebacker to strengthen that position, but he has continued to refine his skills at MIKE in case he was needed there. Speaking before Wilson's injury, Thomas acknowledged the value of preparing to replace Wilson if necessary.
"I'm working a lot at MIKE too. Mostly outside, but some at MIKE too. He (WIlson) might just get winded or something like that, and I can go in and fill in. I feel just as comfortable at MIKE as I would at SAM."
The 6'-0", 225 pounder covers the tight end when playing on the outside. Most tight ends tower over him, but he is not intimidated by their blocking.
"I guard the tight end, but a lot of times they don't really block me. I am kind of quick, so I can get around those guys a little bit. I come up on them sometimes, but I can get around them pretty well. Oh-Oh (Michael Hoomanawanui) is probably my toughest competition making the block in practice."
Regardless where he lines up, Thomas is now the most experienced linebacker on the team. If he remains on the outside, redshirt freshman Evan Frierson moves to the middle. If he goes to the middle, junior college transfer Aaron Gress is a candidate at SAM.
Sophomore Russell Ellington and former safety Nate Bussey man the WILL or weakside linebacker position. Neither Ellington nor Bussey have much experience.
"The young guys are coming along great," Thomas reminds. "I'm confident that they can come in and play and produce."
The former boxer is maturing nicely. Even before Wilson's injury, he was beginning to accept his role as an upperclassman leader.
"I'm trying to set an example for how things are supposed to be done, just come out every day."
Losing Wilson is a devastating blow for the defense. He is their biggest, fastest and most experienced linebacker, and he was doing a good job calling plays for the defense and serving as a leader. Some of that responsibility now falls on Thomas.
But there is no doubt Thomas still believes in the Illini defense and will work hard to make the underdog role work in a positive way.
"Yeah, we're real fired up this year. We like the fact that people don't really expect alot out of us. That's just making us work even harder."