Jeff Thomas' journey from East St. Louis to Miami
It was not until the final stretch of the recruiting calendar for the 2017 cycle that Miami fans realized the possibility of adding one of the most dynamic players in the country – wide receiver Jeff Thomas from East St. Louis High School.
One glimpse of his highlights and the electric playmaking ability jumps right out. It almost seems like Thomas glides with the ball in his hands.
But his journey from East St. Louis to Miami has not always been a smooth ride. Thomas’s high school coach Darren Sunkett joined the podcast last night to discuss his evolution on-and-off the field.
The East St. Louis area, as Coach Sunkett described, produces athletes who compete with a chip on their shoulder – similarly to how football players from Miami are often characterized.
“I’ll tell you, it’s really no difference from Dade County and the kids who grow up in Pork & Beans neighborhood and places like that come from – it’s the same type of environment,” Sunkett said.
“We come from a tough area, but our kids growing up in this type of area, if they can persevere and make it out of this, then they can make it anywhere. We are true believers that with Jeff being from East St. Louis, he can survive anywhere. I think he’s just a perfect fit for the University of Miami.”
Thomas’ ability in the football field has never been in question. For his coaches, it was about finding him the right fit as a young freshman who saw significant playing time at the varsity level.
“Jeff actually came in as a running back from the little league circuit. Us looking at his future and size and things of that sort, we knew we had a special kid and our thing was to convert Jeff into a slot receiver and make him the best slot he could be,” Sunkett explained. “He came in a little raw as far as his route running, but as a natural athlete he’s very gifted. He’s a very gifted pass catcher with great hand-eye coordination and as far as speed goes, he walked in as a freshman and was one of the fastest two or three guys on our football team.”
Where he did have some growing up to do was in the classroom. Thomas just enrolled at the University of Miami this Monday and is fully qualified – something that wouldn't have been possible without him changing his ways in school.
“The biggest thing was academics. When kids come into your program as freshmen, they really don’t understand how important academics are the moment you step foot in high school and Jeff was no different from any other kid – he didn’t take it as seriously as he should have,” he said.
“Jeff is a very intelligent kid, he just didn’t put the effort in that he should have during his early years as a high school student. He had a little bit of an uphill climb to get to where he is academically to qualify at Miami. But kids like him just have tunnel vision, and especially from the inner city, they can’t see that far ahead of them that these opportunities will be there for them when they become seniors.”
He finally flipped the switch over the past year and a half.
“As he continued to mature as an athlete on the field and began getting the national attention he received as a freshman and going into his sophomore and junior years he started to realize that he needed to make a change academically. My hats off to the kid – he really buckled down and got in the books and got his GPA up in a hurry. Like I said, he’s a bright kid – he took the ACT the first time and passed it so it’s telling you just the type of kid he is academically,” Sunkett said.
“I think Jeff is going to be a perfect fit for what you guys do in the offensive system that you run. He has unbelievable ability. I don't think I’ve ever seen a kid track the football the way Jeff does on the deep ball and then once he gets the ball in his hands, he’s electrifying. Once you get him in ball and put him in space, anything can happen,” he said.
As the Hurricanes heated up their recruiting efforts of Thomas in the final months of the process, Sunkett explained that it was one coach in particular who opened the lines of communication for Miami in East St. Louis High School.
“The biggest thing that really helped Jeff get out to Miami was Coach Kool and I have to give him his props there. Coach Kool was the defensive line coach at Mizzou and he recruited another kid of ours who was the one of the top players in the country and is now at Mizzou. Just us having that relationship with Coach Kool and knowing the type of guy he was really helped because he was recruiting Jeff as a freshman when he was at Mizzou,” he said.
“Coach Dugans was very up front when he came here and let us know he was going to really look out for Jeff and he would not let him go astray and he’d be a strong father figure in Jeff’s life once he got out there. It was just trust level and he felt comfortable with Coach Dugans when he got there and it was just a match made in heaven.”