Linebacker Ian Thomas was the leading tackler on the Illinois defense last fall as a redshirt sophomore. His 95 tackles, including 57 solos, were 16 more than his closest pursuer. In addition, he had 4.5 tackles for loss including one sack, and he broke up four passes. Good statistics for his first season as a starter.
But Thomas played half the season with a heavy heart. His parents made the long trip from Berwyn Heights, Maryland, to watch their son play ball for the Illini last October. Unfortunately, his mother became seriously ill that weekend.
"Last year, we were playing Michigan State and they came down and watched the game," Thomas explains. "That night, they called me and told me she had to be rushed to the hospital. They said she had a brain aneurism and had to have emergency surgery."
Despite already having a full load with football and classes, Thomas had to find time for his mother.
"She recovered, but it took about three months. She was here in Illinois for three months before she finally went home. I went up there every day for the whole time. It was during the season, but she helped me stay strong so I wanted to stay strong for her. She's at home now. She's working and had a full recovery."
Thomas played admirably despite worrying about his mother. But it took a toll on him.
"It kind of got me down. I thought about it a lot. But I stayed strong. I wanted to make her proud. A lot of people might have quit, but I wanted to press on for her."
Thomas is relieved of that emotional burden now, but he also must adapt to a chronic shoulder problem that requires a brace.
"My shoulder's kind of giving me problems. That's why I wear a brace. It might (require surgery) in the future, but right now it's not too bad. It's something I can play through. It's not gonna hold me from playing. It happened before the season last year, and I played the whole season with it."
His year of experience helps him a lot now, although learning a new defense under the direction of defensive coordinator Vic Koenning takes time.
"I definitely feel a lot more comfortable out there. I don't have the defense all the way down yet, so that's kind of making me move a little slow. But overall I feel a lot more comfortable and confident. And even when I make a mistake, I feel as long as I'm going hard they know we're just learning.
"There's a lot more to the defense. You've got to know more. Last year it was kind of fit here and fit there. But this year, you've got to fit off a lot of different things that you see. But I like it. We get the freedom to run to the ball a lot more, keep our eyes on the quarterback."
Illini defenders like the aggressive style. But with the defensive linemen hitting the gaps in pursuit of the ball, there is less emphasis on keeping offensive linemen away from the linebackers. He must fend off more blocks than before.
"Kinda, but not really. I don't really have a problem getting off blocks. At the same time, I think it's about the same as last year with the linemen getting on us. So it shouldn't be too much of a problem this year."
Thomas is pleased with Koenning.
"He's a great coach. He knows his defense. I trust him. Everything he tells me I know is right, so I just try to do everything he tells me to do."
When Martez Wilson was lost for the year with neck surgery, Thomas became the middle linebacker. Wilson should be 100% by fall, allowing him to move to the weakside where he will have more freedom to pursue. He is looking forward to it.
"I can't wait to have him out there. I can depend on him. We depend on each other and tell each other everything we need to do. I'm real comfortable with him out there."
Thomas hopes to be a leader this year.
"I definitely want to take a leadership role. I'm not really too vocal, I kind of lead by example. Once I get the whole defense down all right, I'm gonna put away as a leader. But I'm leading pretty well right now."
He must still be concerned about a difficult 2010 schedule that includes powerhouses Missouri, Ohio State, and Penn State among the first five games. But hopefully he won't have any more major emotional upheavals to weigh him down and prevent him from playing his best.