Sports

Former East St. Louis star Jeff Thomas back at Miami with improved skill, maturity

It could have been awkward, when Mark Richt saw Jeff Thomas earlier this year, months after dismissing him from the Miami University football team during Thanksgiving week.

But it really wasn’t.

“We ran into each other and gave each other a hug,” said Thomas, the former East St. Louis star who has returned to Miami under a new coach. “It was good. No [hard feelings] at all.

The final chapter on Thomas’ surprising return to Miami — after stepping foot on the Illinois campus with the intent of enrolling there — must still be written.

But Thomas couldn’t be happier how it has gone so far.

“I’m more than pleased — than I’ve ever been — to come back,” he said. “It was a great opportunity for Manny Diaz to allow me to come back and be part of this amazing program.”

Thomas was a top 100 recruit out of East St. Louis, where he helped lead the Flyers to a 2016 Illinois Class 7A championship. After being dismissed from Miami by Richt last fall, Thomas signed a Big Ten tender of financial aid with plans to enroll at Illinois, so confirmed the Illini’s head coach Lovie Smith.

But the newly-hired Diaz wanted him back for his junior season.

Before Diaz agreed in January to allow Thomas to return to the team, Diaz solicited input from players on the matter, and the feedback was positive. Thomas said Diaz, after hearing him out, told him to “play at my highest ability I’ve ever played before.”

So Thomas said he has been determined to shore up any deficiencies in his game, and receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield has helped him.

“I’m improving my hands,” he said. “I’ve got to use my hands because DBs like to grab me. [Stubblefield] has helped me a lot. I wasn’t a guy who does square cuts and speed cuts [before Stubblefield taught him that]. Square cuts have become my best friend now.”

Here’s what Stubblefield said he told Thomas:

“There’s a difference between being skilled and athletic. When I looked at his film — and all the guys’ film — I saw athleticism. I did not see skill. What’s the difference? There are certain guys in the NFL that are extremely fast. That’s athleticism. Then there are certain guys in the NFL that are highly productive because they’re very skilled.

“Right now, it’s about trying to get the skill level of the position up to where the athleticism is. That’s where you see the best of the best. I talked to all my guys about, ‘Let’s work on the craft of being a receiver.’ It’s personal to me when somebody thinks if you’re just fast, you can go play receiver. You need to know that I either need to go outside or inside if I get pressed.”

So where’s Thomas in regard to all of that?

“He’s gotten better,” Stubblefield said. “It’s been fun to watch what you teach and they do it and are successful, because they kind of have a smile and it also creates validity for what you’re teaching. They’re like, ‘All right, I feel you.’” Your skill has to be what separates you from someone running a 4.3 and a 40-inch vertical.”

Teams geared their defense to stop Thomas last season, and there were several games where it worked. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos and Stubblefield have been working on ways to free him up.

“I think I am going to be able to be freed up more than last year,” Thomas said. “That will be a good. Now we’ve got KJ Osborn and Mike Harley and all the other guys will help me get open.”

Thomas, who led the Canes in receiving with 35 catches for 563 yards and three touchdowns last season, said he has given no thought to whether he will turn pro after this, his junior season. But it wouldn’t surprise anybody if he turns pro in January.

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Jeff Thomas, a star on the 2016 East St. Louis Flyers football team that won a Class 7A state championship, is heading back to the University of Miami after being dismissed from the Hurricanes football team in November. He had told the Champaign News-Gazette Monday that he was heading to Illinois to enroll. Lynne Sladky AP

His electrifying ability as a returner should help his stock, but he needs to produce and comport himself maturely this season to ease concerns of NFL teams.

Last season, he had 10 kick returns for 260 yards, a 26-yard average.

He also had nine punt returns for 221 yards, an incredible 24.6-yard average — and the one touchdown. His all-purpose yards total: 1,063.

When Thomas was jettisoned from the team, a program source said he was not taking care of business off the field. Some around the program also said he needed to show more of a team-first attitude.

Did Thomas believe he needed to change as a person?

“Not really, but [I want to] pick people up, with the receivers, make sure everyone is doing what they’re supposed to be doing, on the same page and competing to the best of their ability.”

Harley, who’s close with Thomas, said he has seen a change: “More maturity. He’s serious now. He’s ready to ball.

Having mature KJ Osborn as a roommate and mentor has certainly helped.

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