During an all-school assembly, with national media broadcasting live, East St. Louis senior wide receiver Jeff Thomas made his long-awaited college choice known — the University of Miami.
Thomas, the No. 8 ranked high school wide receiver in the nation and No. 57 recruit overall according to Rivals.com, appeared nervous as he sat among teammates and family members during the ceremony which was held Wednesday in the East St. Louis High School auditorium.
But with his East St. Louis classmates, administration, family members and national media, which included Sports Illustrated and ESPN providing live coverage of the event, Thomas calmly reached under his seat, put on the orange and green Miami visor, then spoke the words Hurricane coaches and fans wanted to hear.
“I’m going to the University of Miami,” Thomas said as the crowd erupted.
The 5-foot-10, 170-pound Thomas, an Under Armour All-American and the MVP of the Under Armour All-American game last month, was one of eight Flyers who made their college choices known Wednesday.
His quarterback, Reyondous Estes, who had given previous verbal commitments to both Western Michigan and Missouri, announced that he will attend the University of Minnesota. Estes choose Minnesota to follow new head coach P.J. Fleck, who had recruited him to Western Michigan.
Estes will be joined in the Big Ten Conference by linebacker James Knight, who announced earlier this month that he will play at Illinois.
Thomas visited Miami earlier this month and had offers from almost every other major Division I power in the country including Alabama, Ohio State, Louisville, Oregon, Tennessee and Michigan.
But on Wednesday he became a Hurricane.
“It was a tough decision because all the schools I looked at have great traditions and programs,” Thomas said. “Miami is just a place where I thought I could be happy. I just took my time, thought about the process, the whole four years, so I could be where I’m at now with a good choice to make.
“Miami ... They’ve got good tradition that I’m in love with, and people that come from there are good people. I can see myself fitting in at Miami really good, but only time will tell. I’m just willing to go down there and work and be the best that I can be.”
Thomas finished his Flyers career with 177 receptions for 3,532 yards and 41 touchdowns.
Timed at just over 4.3 seconds in the 40-yard dash and blessed with elusive downfield moves, Thomas was a big reason East St. Louis won its eighth state football championship at the University of Illinois in November.
Knight to Illini
Knight said his choice was Illinois from the outset. A two-time all-Southwestern Conference player and the leader of the Flyers’ strong defense, Knight may be a bit undersized to make an impact at the Big 10 level in the eyes of many.
But what Knight may lack in size, he makes up for with speed and heart. Knight committed verbally to Illinois earlier this month.
“I really didn’t look at any other schools. I knew Illinois was where I wanted to go. It wasn’t a tough choice at all for me,” Knight said. “They (the coaches) really haven’t told me where I’ll play. I just want a chance to show them what I can do.”
Knight said former Flyers great Terry Hawthorne, who played at Illinois along with Stanley Green, influenced his decision.
“It feels like home when I’m up there,” he said. “I feel comfortable up there. Terry Hawthorne and Stanley Green, they helped with the decision. They are guys that I look up to. Stan is a guy I played with last season, and it’ll be good to be on his team again.”
The mass signing Wednesday was also very meaningful for East St. Louis coach Darren Sunkett who continues to produce winning football teams while providing his players a chance to fulfill their dreams of playing college football.
“Signing day — it’s always a big day,” Sunkett said. “When they walk in your locker room as freshman and you see them develop over a four-year span and develop into the young men they are today. This is one heck of an achievement for these young guys.
“When you put in those four years of hard work and reach your ultimate goal of signing your letter of intent, it’s definitely a great day for them, and as a coach it’s a proud moment to see them achieve a dream that they set forth as freshman.”
Estes said he was particularly excited about the prospect of someday lining up against Knight in a Big 10 game.
"It's every players dream to play with or against a former teammate,” Estes said. “I know Jimmy-Jam brings the wood — he's not going to back down and I'm not going to back down.”
Other signings at East St. Louis on Wednesday included:
▪ Tahler “T.J.” Cook: Clark Atlanta University
▪ Markevion Darough, defensive back: Clark Atlanta University
▪ Malcolm Bell, defensive back: Jones County Community College
▪ Ken Dixon, linebacker: Iowa Western Community College
▪ LaMontre Harvey, defensive line: Iowa Western Community College