It was a done deal. After Jeff Thomas made the decision to leave Miami, Lovie Smith was able to lure the speedy wide receiver to Illinois and convince him to bring his talent to Champaign.

Landing the former 4-star prospect was easily the biggest move Smith has made in his three years with the Illini. Thomas was the headliner in a slew of talented commitments Illinois has landed over the last few months, both on the recruiting trail and on the transfer market.

Just as quickly as Thomas pledged to the Illini — giving the program a much-needed boost after three disappointing seasons — the wide receiver was gone. Late Tuesday night, he announced that he would return to Miami to finish out his college career.

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The on-again, off-again saga between Thomas and Illinois reached its conclusion, and the Illini didn’t get the storybook ending they had hoped for. But even though things didn’t go according to plan in what turned out to be the Jeff Thomas sweepstakes, there’s still plenty of reason to be optimistic about the direction the program is headed.

Illinois still received three significant commitments from transferring players this offseason:

  • Luke Ford, TE, Georgia
  • A.D. Miller, WR, Oklahoma
  • Richie Petitbon, OL, Alabama

Miller and Petitbon can make an impact immediately, both being eligible for the 2019 season. Ford will have to await a decision from the NCAA regarding his eligibility for the fall.

While none of the three players have had stat-stuffing careers, they’ve all been associated with championship-caliber programs. Miller was a member of one of the most high-powered offenses in the country at Oklahoma, totaling 21 catches for 246 yards and four touchdowns. The Sooners have reached the College Football Playoff each of the past two seasons.

Ford and Petitbon have had even more limited roles at Georgia and Alabama, but considering the amount of talent on the two rosters, it can be difficult to squeeze in playing time, even for some of the more talented prospects in the country.

Securing commitments from those transfers is only half of the story from the offseason.

When you look at Illinois’ incoming recruiting class, it’s easy to be turned off by the minimal number of prospects and low rankings. The Illini currently have just 12 commitments and rank 61st nationally and 12th in the B1G. Nobody is breaking out the champagne and confetti for that kind of class.

But Smith was able to secure pledges from three 4-star talents:

  • Marquez Beason, 4-star ATH
  • Isaiah Williams, 4-star ATH
  • Shammond Cooper, 4-star LB

Beason is a top 100 prospect in the 2019 recruiting class, and Williams isn’t far behind, ranking in the top 120. Cooper is ranked in the top 300 and is considered one of the top 20 linebackers in this cycle.

And let’s not forget that Cooper made his announcement on national television during the Under Armour All-America Game earlier this month. That kind of exposure for the Illini is a big deal.

Over the weekend, lead running back Reggie Corbin also announced that he was returning to Champaign for his final season. He rushed for 1,085 yards and nine touchdowns for the Illini, becoming the program’s first running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in a season since Mikel Leshoure in 2010.

There are some really good names on Illinois’ 2019 roster.

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Losing Thomas is definitely a gut-punch for the Illini, and there’s really no denying that. Having a player with his kind of speed and ability back out after promising to join the program is certainly a disappointment. But let’s not ignore the fact that getting a player like Thomas — who would’ve been one of the program’s highest-rated prospects in recent memory — interested in Illinois is pretty important, too.

Even if he decided to back away, how many elite players consider going to a program that finished the season 4-8 and is a whopping 9-27 over the last three years? Smith and his staff are doing something right.

Getting this much interest in Illinois from high-quality players is no easy task, especially with the lack of success the program has endured. That, alone, should tell you that things are starting to improve, even if it’s coming at a slow pace.

Illinois might’ve lost Thomas, but it’s still been a winner this offseason. There’s plenty for the Illini to be excited about heading into spring workouts.