Miami Thomas made a name for himself by making two great plays in the secondary to preserve the Illinois victory at Ohio State in 2007. However, he has missed the last two seasons. He had knee and shoulder surgeries in 2008, and he tore up his other knee in Camp Rantoul last fall.
Thomas is back competing for playing time, but instead of his usual big smile, a grimace crossed his face as he made his way to an interview after the first practice this fall. Gone was the self-certainty Thomas normally maintains.
"I just kind of can't think about it. I come out here to play football. It's what I do, it's what I love. It's nice to get back out here. I'm playing on adrenalin right now."
How close is he to full recovery from his latest knee surgery?
"I'd say about 85%. I've been cleared to play. It's just mental, that's what I think. The trainers tell me I'm 100%. I've got to get comfortable doing everything I used to do like running, jumping and cutting.
"For the first day, they say I look all right. I'll just try to get better from this day. Some days they'll have to put a load on me so I can show the coaches they can depend on me."
After two years away from the game he loves, Thomas must practice whether he is ready or not.
"I've just got to make it up. If I can get out of Camp, I'll be all right. I'm excited to be out here with my teammates. That's the thing that I miss the most, being with the fellows. That's the biggest thing, just coming out to be here with these guys. They keep pushing me. They kept sending me along during the summer."
Hopefully, it is just a matter of confidence in his knee that is holding him back. He must forget the past two years and remember what it was like when he was healthy.
"Yeah, that's the main thing. Knowing I can make it through camp. I never really had injuries. My two biggest injuries are season-ending injuries. That's the mental thing. Yeah, I need to get back to my freshman year format. As I get back there, I'll be all right."
Two years of inactivity were as excruciating as any body pain.
"It was tough, it really was. Watching these guys every day, sitting at home watching games. I still haven't played at Penn State. I still haven't played in the Big House, and this is my fourth year here. I'm anxious to get out there and show them what I can do."
He is also excited about the potential of the new defense brought in by Vic Koenning.
"I love it. Coach Vic is a crazy man. He gets on me a lot, just like all the coaches do. The defense is great. We've got some good things for the future."
Thomas has two years of eligibility remaining, and he can petition for a third. That is, if his body holds up. We will know he is back when his bright smile returns and his playful trash talk toward opposing receivers resumes.