CHAMAPIGN — Jeff Thomas is coming back to Illinois.
The former East St. Louis star announced his transfer to the University of Illinois football team on Twitter Friday after leaving the University of Miami football team near the end of the season.
"I would like to thank The University of Miami, my teammates, coaches for their amazing support the past 2 years," the tweet read. "With that being said, I would like to thank Coach Lovie smith for this opportunity to further my education and football career at the University of Illinois."
I would like to thank The University of Miami, my teammates, coaches for their amazing support the past 2 years. With that being said, I would like to thank Coach Lovie smith for this opportunity to further my education and football career at the University of Illinois. pic.twitter.com/mnJHUMiQ8b— Jeff Thomas (@theregoes4) December 22, 2018
When he hits the field, Thomas, a 5-foot-10 175-pounder, will provide relief to the Illini for a position that was decimated by injuries last season. Thomas played in 11 of 12 games for Miami as a sophomore this past season with 35 catches for 563 yards and three touchdowns, and had 221 punt return yards with a touchdown. The Miami Herald said Thomas was "widely recognized as the most gifted player on the Hurricanes' offense."
Thomas signed a Big Ten Tender of Financial Aid and plans to enroll at Illinois this spring. NCAA rules mandate that a player sit out one season after transferring from another school, unless that player is granted a waiver, which he will pursue.
"Jeff Thomas is an elite level football player who we expect to make an immediate impact with the Fighting Illini program," Illinois head coach Lovie Smith said in a statement. "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. We will fully support his efforts for immediate eligibility at Illinois."
As a true freshman in 2017, Thomas played in 13 games with four starts and caught 17 passes for 374 yards and two touchdowns. He was the No. 532 in the nation by 247Sports, No. 55 by ESPN and No. 57 by Rivals. He was ranked the No. 8 receiver in the nation by Rivals and ESPN and No. 9 by 247Sports. ESPN ranked Thomas as the No. 1 recruit in Illinois and he was ranked No. 2 in the state by 247Sports and Rivals.
By season's end, Illinois was wearing thin at receiver, and will graduate senior Sam Mays and Mikey Dudek from the group. Dudek was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury in a Week 1 win against Kent State, and freshman Edwin Carter left in Week 2 against Western Illinois with a season-ending knee injury he suffered while bringing down his second touchdown of the day.
Ricky Smalling was the team's leading receiver with 33 catches for 406 yards and five touchdowns.
The announcement comes two days after Smith, who will be in his fourth season as head coach when next year opens, signed a small, but talented recruiting class that included a pair of four-star players in quarterback Isaiah Williams from Trinity Catholic in St. Louis and cornerback Marquez Beason from Duncanville, Texas.
There was one receiver, Casey Washington from Pflugerville, Texas, in the early signing period.
Thomas was a four-star recruit out of East St. Louis after leading the team to a 2016 Class 7A state championship. He was the No. 2-ranked player in the state of Illinois, according to 247sports.com, and was No. 55 in the ESPN300.
He had 47 catches for 996 yards and 11 touchdowns as a senior at East St. Louis.
There was a flurry of response on Twitter after Thomas announced his decision.
"Welcome home bro! You're going to thrive in (Rod Smith's) offense," Dudek tweeted. "Illini Nation should be PUMPED!!"
"Welcome to the family brother!," offensive tackle Alex Palczewski tweeted.
Former Illini, and East St. Louis alum, Terry Hawthorne tweeted: "Welcome home big time. It's gone be like you never left #illinination"