College Sports

Could former East St. Louis wide receiver Jeff Thomas be headed back to Miami?

Jeff Thomas, the electrifying former Miami Hurricanes receiver who was dismissed from the team Thanksgiving week, has conveyed interest to the University of Miami in returning to the school, two sources said Saturday.

Coach Manny Diaz will decide whether Thomas will return, and it’s unclear what that decision will be.

One player on last year’s team said he was left with the impression that Thomas will return to the team. But it’s unknown if Diaz has given authorization for that.

It is believed Thomas had no legal or other issues that would preclude him from returning if UM chooses to bring him back.

After leaving UM, Thomas, an All-American member of East St. Louis 7A state championship team in 2016, originally announced he would attend Illinois, but it’s unclear if he ever enrolled.

If he returns, he would have two years of eligibility remaining but would be eligible to enter his name in the NFL Draft after next season.

One player on last year’s team said Thomas and Miami parted ways partly because he was unhappy and partly because he was homesick. But now the idea of returning to the Hurricanes appeals to him, according to the sources.

When Thomas was dismissed from the team, coach Mark Richt said in a statement: “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. We wish Jeff the very best as he moves forward in his journey.’’

A player previously said Thomas did not attend meetings the week he was dismissed, angering the staff. The university had benched him for the first two series of the previous weekend’s game Nov. 17 against Virginia Tech because Miami wanted to hold him accountable for not taking care of business off the field.

Nearly four hours after his dismissal, Thomas posted his own statement on Twitter, which has since been deleted.

“Regarding to the situation with me,” Thomas wrote. “I did not get kicked off the team as of how bad it sounds. I came to a agreement with my Head Coach on leaving the program to better my future life and family life. I couldn’t thank this program of how much they’ve done for me, and the things I’ve done on the field is my way of respect for the program. Much Love!! #BeatPitt.”

On Dec. 21, the Belleville News-Democrat reported that Thomas “signed a Big Ten tender of financial aid and plans to enroll at the University of Illinois this spring,” according to coach Lovie Smith.

“By rule,’’ the News-Democrat noted, “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” and that Smith “will fully support his efforts for immediate eligibility.”

At the time, Smith told News-Democrat: “Jeff Thomas is an elite level football player who we expect to make an immediate impact with the Fighting Illini program. 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.”

His final week at Miami wasn’t the first time Thomas was mired in controversy.

Sports Illustrated noted that during his senior season, 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.”

Thomas, a former Under-Armour All American, at one point in September led the nation in yards per catch and was No. 6 nationally in all-purpose yards and No. 10 in combined kick returns.

Despite leaving early, Thomas led the Canes in receiving with 35 catches for 563 yards and three touchdowns, a 16.1-yard average per reception (which ranked 69th nationally).

He also had 10 kick returns in 2018 for 260 yards, a 26-yard average that would have been tied for the seventh in the country if he had enough returns to qualify for the NCAA’s FBS leaderboard.

He also had nine punt returns for 221 yards and a touchdown, a 24.6 yard average that would have led the nation if he had enough returns to qualify.

Thomas, who said he was timed at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash last year, was considered one of the most electrifying players in the country during his two seasons at UM.

If Miami puts Thomas back on the team, the Hurricanes would have at least nine scholarship receivers: senior transfer K.J. Osborn, junior-to-be Mike Harley Jr., sophomores Brian Hightower, Mark Pope, Dee Wiggins and Evidence Njoku; redshirt freshman Marquez Ezzard and incoming freshman Jeremiah Payton.