A redshirt candidate no longer, Thomas’ role will continue to grow

Freshman+quarterback+Cam+Thomas+%2810%29+runs+the+ball+down+field+in+the+Illini%27s+game+against+Minnesota.+The+Illini+lost+24-17.
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A redshirt candidate no longer, Thomas’ role will continue to grow

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas (10) runs the ball down field in the Illini's game against Minnesota. The Illini lost 24-17.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas (10) runs the ball down field in the Illini's game against Minnesota. The Illini lost 24-17.

Derek Neal/Illinois Athletics

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas (10) runs the ball down field in the Illini's game against Minnesota. The Illini lost 24-17.

Derek Neal/Illinois Athletics

Derek Neal/Illinois Athletics

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas (10) runs the ball down field in the Illini's game against Minnesota. The Illini lost 24-17.

By Jacob Diaz, Staff writer

The Illinois football team has played 26 true freshmen this season, the most of any team in the FBS this season. Fourteen of those true freshmen have started games, which also leads the FBS.

But the Illini still have a few fresh faces who have yet to see the field, and at this point in the season, the option to leave them on the sideline for the rest of the season with a redshirt is a very real possibility.

“I think in an ideal world, if we haven’t played a player by now, you would maybe try to (redshirt him),” said head coach Lovie Smith. “But if the team needs him, the guy has got to play.”

And this past week against Minnesota, Smith and offensive coordinator Garrick McGee decided that the team needed one of those players: freshman quarterback Cam Thomas.

Thomas is a dual threat who was a three-star recruit coming out of Marian Catholic High School in Chicago Heights, Illinois. Many expected Thomas to sit this season out to develop and adjust to the college game, but when Smith announced that Jeff George Jr. would be taking over as the starter over Chayce Crouch, he turned some heads by saying that Thomas, and not Crouch, was second on the depth chart.

George has moved the ball more effectively than Crouch has, but he has also been prone to turning the ball over, with seven interceptions and a fumble in three games heading into this week. After Minnesota scored on their opening drive  Saturday, McGee began rotating Thomas in on some plays to give the offense a different look.

“Each possession is so important, the margin for error is so slim, that you have to have the right guy out there at the right time,” McGee said. “Cam did a lot of running, but he threw the ball also, handed the ball off. We just wanted to get his feet on the ground.”

Thomas put his feet on a lot of ground against Minnesota, rushing the ball 10 times for 79 yards over the course of the game. He only threw the ball four times, but completed a 25-yard pass to wide receiver Dominic Thieman on his first career passing attempt.

“I think I have the arm to make any throw on the field, and the legs to extend the play as much as I need to,” Thomas said. “This week I want to put emphasis on my pass game. Last week I showed I could run the football, and I want to show that I can throw it too.”

Smith, McGee and Thomas all seem to be on the same page as far as Thomas’ role moving forward. Illini fans can expect to see the young quarterback get more and more involved in the passing game as the season progresses.

While he made one glaring error — an interception late in the fourth quarter with the Illinois only a score behind Minnesota — McGee says the blame for that play falls more on him than on Thomas.

“He did well, I just put him in a tough spot,” McGee said. “That situation with that particular play call, it probably wasn’t the best thing for him. He was running, so we thought we could hit them with a play action, but the outside linebacker came and got him. He’s not gonna be looking at that right now, so I put him in a bad spot.”

McGee said while there are situations that will keep Thomas on the sidelines for now, Thomas’ maturity for his age will help him grow quickly.

“His role will continue to grow,” McGee said. “We want him to continue to develop. When this offensive crew comes back next season, we don’t want to be waiting around on Cam. We want him to be ready to go.”

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