Former East St. Louis wide receiver Jeff Thomas, dispatched last month from the University of Miami, signed a Big Ten tender of financial aid and plans to enroll at the University of Illinois this spring, head football coach Lovie Smith said Friday.
By rule, Thomas would be required to sit out a season for transferring to another FBS program and would still have two years of playing eligibility remaining, though he can appeal to the NCAA to have the sit-year waived.
Smith said Illinois football “will fully support his efforts for immediate eligibility.”
“Jeff Thomas is an elite level football player who we expect to make an immediate impact with the Fighting Illini program,” Smith said. “We know he is excited to return to his home state. This continues a string of great players from East St. Louis coming to the University of Illinois. We recruited Jeff extremely hard out of high school, and when he contacted us about the possibility of returning home, we were immediately interested in making his wishes come true. “
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Coming out of East St. Louis, Thomas was rated the No. 8 wide receiver in the nation and No. 57 recruit overall according to Rivals.com. He gained national attention during the 2017 Under Armour High School All-America Game with a game-record 148 yards receiving and two touchdowns.
In November of 2016, after scoring two touchdowns to help the East St. Louis Flyers win the Illinois 7A championship at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, he identified the Illini as one of the finalist to gain his considerable talent in college.
Barely three months later, he told a national television audience on ESPN that he would instead attend Miami.
From all outward appearances, it was a good fit. Thomas received plenty of touches as a slot receiver and kick returner as a true freshman. This season, he was leading the Hurricanes with 35 catches for 563 yards and three touchdowns — a 16.1-yard average per catch — when Miami coach Mark Richt dismissed him from the team.
In a Tweet, Thomas thanked Richt for the opportunity and characterized his departure from the team as a mutual agreement that allowed him to tend “to better my future life and family life.”
Talk that he would consider moving on to Illinois or Missouri began almost immediately.
But according to the Miami Herald, Thomas clashed with wide receivers coach Ron Dugans and left the team angrily the week before his dismissal. Thomas subsequently removed all references to UM from his social media accounts.
“We have high standards for excellence, for conduct and for the commitment to team for all of the young men who wear our uniform, and we will not waver from those standards,’’ Richt said in a release at the time.
Thomas had a similar incident in high school, as documented in “89 Blocks,” a 2017 documentary on the East St. Louis High football team that was produced by Sports Illustrated with support by NBA star LeBron James.
During his senior season, the documentary stated, Thomas was “absent from a string of practices [and] held out of a game and must eventually win over his teammates, who voted on whether he should keep his roster spot. His coaches confide that their star is hard to reach, often hidden behind walls he’s built to protect himself from a harsh environment.”
Smith and the Illini picked up another metro-east standout Wednesday when Belleville West defensive lineman Keith Randolph signed a national letter of intent to play at Illinois.