Coach Vic Sells Earnest Thomas On Illini

Orchard Park St. Mary's in Michigan is a football factory, producing major college prospects yearly. So when safety Earnest Thomas committed to UCLA last summer, it was no surprise. What was surprising was when Thomas decommitted in early January, opening himself to new possibilities. Illinois took advantage and added the hard hitter to their team.

Earnest Thomas committed to UCLA without visiting the campus, and he was beginning to have second thoughts. There were a number of other schools interested in the 6'-2", 195 pounder, so he reopened his recruitment.

"I wanted to open it up just to get a better feel for everything. I had been committed so long, and I didn't get a chance to really explore all my options as much as I would have liked.

"So when I made my decommit, I decided I would make the best of it and get out to see everybody who was interested in me before I decommitted. Luckily, the day I decommitted I had just about every school in the Big 10 call me. That made the process a lot easier."

That is when Illinois took advantage of its new opportunity.

"The day I decommitted, Coach (Keith) Gilmore called me," Thomas remembers. "He was my main recruiting coach through the entire process. He wanted to know if I was still interested in Illinois. I told him of course I would be.

"After that, Coach Vic (Koenning), the new defensive coordinator, called me and told me how interested he was and how he really liked my film. He wanted me to play in the new defense they would be running. He felt I would fit perfectly into the defense, and he wanted to coach me.

"When he called, it was sort of a surprise to me, but he wanted to talk to me about ball and life. It was really a good conversation. That was one of the key factors in my commitment. In the short time I had to get to know him, we just clicked right off the bat.

"He was at the house, and we sat down for about an hour and watched film on the schools he was at recently. We watched a lot of film on Clemson and a couple other schools. So we had a good time, and I could see the interest was high. It turned out to be mutual."

Koenning plans to use a hybrid safety/linebacker as part of his defensive approach. The position fits Thomas well.

"When Coach Vic called me, he said he wanted to play the 4-2-5, and that's what I'd been playing my whole life. He wanted me to play rover, so that was something that really stood out for me.

"As far as my game is concerned, I could play linebacker but I'm not a true linebacker. I'm sort of in the middle. I could play safety or linebacker, but the position Coach Vic wants me to play at Illinois fits my game perfect. I'll be a little of both. Sometimes you blitz, and sometimes you drop back in coverage or are in the slot. So it's a lot of different things going into it."

The exact position is not as important to Koenning as the quality of the players on his defense.

"That's one thing Coach Vic really stressed. He wants players who make plays. He isn't concerned with position as much as being able to use their strengths and not their weaknesses."

The defense will be new to the entire Illini team, so Thomas feels he has a chance to compete early for playing time.

"Yes, that's another thing that attracted me. It's a good opportunity for me to be able to come in and compete for a spot. It's a new, different defense, so it's wide open. Whoever plays the position the best will get the job.

"The coaches told me the position is wide open and to come in and compete to get on the field early. After talking to Coach Zook, Coach Vic and everybody else, they definitely feel I can come in and compete and get a chance to play early. Coach Zook has experience playing younger guys, so that was another thing that was a plus."

Playing in Big 10 country rather than in California was a benefit for his family as well.

"It wasn't the main factor, but it's a simple fact my family can come down to all my home games if they want to. It's not even five hours away. It's right up the road almost. That was definitely a big plus."

Thomas had already visited Minnesota, and he was planning to split the next weekend between Illinois and Wisconsin. But the latter part of his trip never materialized.

"We were originally supposed to go to Illinois for about a day and a half and then go to Wisconsin after that. But when we got down there for that one day, I just really enjoyed it. I felt it was gonna come down to between Minnesota and Illinois.

"I had been to Minnesota the previous weekend for the whole weekend, and I really enjoyed that. I felt I needed a full weekend experience to see how things worked down there. If I only had one day, my commitment to Illinois probably wouldn't have happened.

"Wisconsin wanted me to come down the next weekend to see what they had to offer, but after my visit to Illinois I knew it was gonna come down to those two. Minnesota and Illinois were the two schools I had my eye on."

By the time he left Champaign, he and his family had purchased some Illini gear in anticipation of Signing Day. Now an Illini, Thomas is focusing on preparing himself for summer school and football practice.

"I might run track, but if I don't I still will be running. I might not go out for track if it takes me away from getting in some really good lifting and other aspects that I want to work on. I ran the 300 hurdles and the 200 last year.

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