"Spring ball was all right, but it didn't meet my expectations," Thomas recalls. "I was still learning because I redshirted last year. I was learning the defense and everything that was going on.
"But after the spring, I feel like I know everything. I'm still learning, just trying to get everything perfected. The spring was all right, but I'm trying to have a great summer."
So far, his work since spring is paying dividends.
"This summer, I wanted to be in the best shape I could possibly be in. Just to go without being tired. So far, I haven't been tired. I'm learning and going 110% every play. That's the main thing."
"Yes sir. Right now, me and Tru are taking reps at the SAM. I know for Tru, it's a little more of an adjustment. But he'll be all right.
"Hopefully, I can step up and fill in so maybe he can go back to his old position and do what he needs to do back there. He was looking forward to doing some big things playing safety. Hopefully, if I can step in and contribute, get up to speed, I can fit right in."
The 6'-2", 220 pounder knows the ability is there.
"I'm definitely confident I can do that. It's just a process. Every day just trying to get better. I can't make the same mistakes tomorrow that I made today, and I can't make the same mistakes I made in the spring in the summer. So it's all about improving and getting better. Trying to be perfect every day."
Thomas has made considerable progress in one year. When he watches freshman Zeph Grimes trying to learn the position, he is reminded how far he has come.
"Zeph reminds me of me a little bit my first year. He's a little confused, but you can tell he has the talent to definitely contribute. When he gets everything down pat, he's gonna be all right."
Thomas is an eloquent spokesman for the Illini defense this fall.
"We've got everything we need to be successful this year. We've got speed at every position, we've got talent at every position. We can do whatever we set our minds to. It's just about getting better every day and being perfect as a unit. If we do that, we're gonna be all right."
He balks at the idea the Illini have no defensive superstars after top juniors Corey Liuget and Martez Wilson left a year early to pursue pro careers.
"Everybody's saying we lost players last year, Corey and Tez were our superstars. But we've got people who are in transition to become superstars. As a team, we can all be superstars. I won't say we don't have any superstars. Coach always says, if the next person achieves, we achieve also. We'll be all right."
With the Illini offense and defense evenly matched at Camp Rantoul, both sides of the ball benefit.
"Our offense is working hard every day, and we're pushing each other. It's our job to push them, and it's their job to push us. So when the first game comes, we'll be ready."
Outside linebacker coach Ron West is encouraged by Thomas's development. Adversity brings opportunity.
"This camp has really helped Earnest Thomas because he's gotten a tremendous amount of reps. With the situation the way it is, he's gotten a little bit more reps than we would have probably figured. And, he's done pretty well.
"He makes mistakes, just like any other kid. But he's learning, and he's got a good work ethic. I think before it's over with, if he continues to improve he's going to be fine."