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Dylan Thomas

Illinois freshman Dylan Thomas is a preferred walk-on receiver for the Illini. Playing for the Illini is a dream-come-true for the Monticello graduate.

CHAMPAIGN — Somewhere in the Thomas family scrapbook, there's a picture of Dylan Thomas proudly sporting a Juice Williams jersey.

Thomas, a 2017 Monticello graduate, was five or six years old when Williams, then an Illinois quarterback, led the Illini to the 2008 Rose Bowl.

Last month when the Rose Bowl team convened in Champaign to celebrate their 10-year anniversary, the players made a stop to talk to the current Illini team.

When Williams walked in, Thomas' eyes went wide and he realized just how far he's come as a preferred walk-on wide receiver on the Illinois football team.

"I was like, ‘Wow, that’s something special,'" Thomas said of seeing Williams and the rest of the team.

For the first week of training camp, Thomas had just worn a blue practice jersey with no name on the back of it. Then on Friday at Illinois football media day, he got to slide a game jersey over his shoulders.

The back of the blue jersey in orange lettering simply read, 'Thomas' with the number 82 stitched below it in large text.

“I was thinking about all the hard work I put into it by getting here and how happy I was," he said of putting on the jersey for the first time. "It brought up a lot of good memories."

Thomas carries a lifetime of memories that include making the 30-minute drive on Interstate 72 from Monticello to Memorial Stadium in Champaign for Illinois football games.

He remembers watching Illinois head coach Lovie Smith coach the Chicago Bears to NFC Championship games and the 2007 Super Bowl.

No longer is Thomas simply a fan of the Illini and of Lovie Smith as a coach.

Thomas is part of Illinois' team and Smith is his new coach.

“It means everything to me," Thomas said. "Growing up around Champaign-Urbana area, it’s kind of hard to put into words, to be honest. It means a lot."

Thomas accepted his preferred walk-on spot before his senior season at Monticello, where he caught 32 passes for 499 yards and three touchdowns in the Sages' spread offense.

But the biggest moment for Thomas came before the season started. He'd been in contact with Illinois receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker and attended a camp at Illinois in June before his senior season.

"We'll keep an eye on you," he was told.

Thomas assumed he would need to put up big numbers to have a shot of playing for the Illini, like 150-yard games with three touchdowns — numbers he didn't reach.

But before last season's opener, Thomas got a call from Smith, offering a preferred walk-on spot.

“I kind of broke down in tears, honestly," Thomas said. "I spent so much time working to get there and finally feel that relief of hard work paying off. It was amazing."

With training camp set to end on Saturday, the two-week practices have been an adjustment.

The game is faster and the players blaze down the field.

Thomas has seen receivers Carmoni Green and Mike Dudek torch defenders with their speed, an eye-opening experience.

Then there was the second day of camp, when Thomas took team reps. At Monticello, he was able to break outside on certain routes. Those opportunities have been limited in Champaign.

“The speed of the game," he said of the adjustment to Big Ten football. "In high school, it’s fast, but here it’s a whole ‘nother level."

At this time last year, Thomas was preparing for his senior season. Practices lasted a few hours and were followed by an afternoon or evening of freedom.

Now his mornings start earlier and his days run longer. At training camp he waits for his team reps or absorbs information from veteran receivers or Hayes-Stoker.

It's different, but it's better.

"In high school, the first week of August is the two-a-day practices, and you get done by one or two," Thomas said. "This you wake up and you’ve got meetings, practice, more meetings, walk-through, more meetings, but it was just cool."

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Contact Joey Wagner at (217) 421-6970. Follow him on Twitter: @mrwagner25

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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