UM receiver Jeff Thomas talks about his play
University of Miami sophomore receiver Jeff Thomas, widely considered the team’s most gifted player on offense, missed practice Tuesday and Wednesday amid swirling questions about whether he intends to remain with the Hurricanes.
A UM spokesman said Wednesday that Thomas was not at practice for personal reasons but was still in Miami as of late morning and noted “he is a member of our football team.” UM declined to expound otherwise, and coach Mark Richt wasn’t scheduled to speak to reporters on Wednesday.
According to a source, Thomas has clashed with wide receivers coach Ron Dugans and left the team angrily this week, choosing not to attend meetings on Tuesday. Thomas subsequently removed all references to UM on his social media accounts.
“He’s a huge part of the team,’’ redshirt freshman quarterback N’Kosi Perry said Wednesday afternoon following practice, when asked what Thomas means to the team and the offense. “He’s a great player and I can’t wait till he’s here.”
A reporter responded: “Do you think he’s coming back?”
“You have to ask the coaches,’’ said Perry, who said he has “been in touch’’ with Thomas.
“I’m not really here to talk about Jeff,’’ Perry said.
Offensive coordinator Thomas Brown told reporters after Perry spoke that the situation Thomas is “an in-house issue.’’
“We’ll handle it in-house,’’ Brown said. “I’m not going to make a public comment about it. I’ll say whatever I say to him off camera.’’
How important is Thomas to the team?
“Very important,’’ Brown answered. All our guys are important. So, we love the guys that are here and we’re going to move forward and get ready to win this football game.’’
Is there an expectation Thomas will return to the team?
“No comment,” Brown replied. “I’m not talking about Jeff.”
The source said Thomas has spoken about the possibility of transferring to Illinois. He would be required to sit out a season if he transferred to another FBS program and would still have two years of playing eligibility remaining. He would be draft-eligible after one more season.
Thomas was benched for the first two series of Saturday’s game at Virginia Tech and played only 28 of 69 offensive snaps. According to the WQAM game broadcast, the thinking was that Thomas was being shown tough love by the staff.
According to a source, Thomas did not start because UM wanted to make him accountable for not taking care of business off the field.
Thomas had a similar incident in high school, according to 89 Blocks, a 2017 documentary on the East St. Louis High football team that was executive-produced by Sports Illustrated, LeBron James and his agent, Maverick Carter.
Sports Illustrated noted that during his senior season, Thomas was “absent from a string of practices [and] held out of a game and must eventually win over his teammates, who voted on whether he should keep his roster spot. His coaches confide that their star is hard to reach, often hidden behind walls he’s built to protect himself from a harsh environment.”
Thomas, a 5-10, 178-pound sophomore and former East St. Louis High Under Armour All-American, at one point, in September, led the nation in yards per catch and was No. 6 nationally in all-purpose yards and No. 10 in combined kick returns.
His targets have diminished somewhat since, but Thomas leads the Canes in receiving with 35 catches for 563 yards and three touchdowns, a 16.1-yard average per catch.
Thomas, who said he was timed at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash this year, is considered one of the most electrifying players in the country. Last week at Virginia Tech, Thomas posted 110 all-purpose yards, including a dazzling 51-yard punt return for a touchdown.
He has 10 kick returns this season for 260 yards, a 26-yard average.
He also has nine punt returns for 221 yards, a 24.6-yard average — and the one touchdown.
Thomas has a team-high 22 plays of 20-or-more yards this season.
According to an associate, coach Mark Richt was thrilled when Thomas committed to UM in February 2017. But there were questions about his diligence with academics coming out of high school. He reportedly missed classes in high school.
If Thomas leaves, it would be a crushing blow in the wake of UM learning in October that star receiver Ahmmon Richards would not play again because of a neck injury. Richt said UM has envisioned an explosive passing offense with Richards and Thomas playing major roles.
Beyond Thomas, the Canes have eight other receivers on scholarship: Mike Harley Jr., Lawrence Cager, Darrell Langham, Evidence Njoku and freshmen Mark Pope, Brian Hightower, Dee Wiggins and Marquez Ezzard.
Of that group, Langham is the only senior. The others are expected back in 2019, barring transfers.
Pope reportedly complained about his playing time on a social media post last Saturday night before taking it down. He played only 18 snaps against Virginia Tech and had his first reception of the season in that game.
On Wednesday, Perry was also asked about rumors that some players aren’t happy about playing time and if he had reached out to any of them about their roles.
“I always make sure they’re alright,’’ Perry said. “But like I said, this week at practice, everybody had high energy and I can tell everybody’s been having fun. For freshmen, I definitely tell them how I was last year. I didn’t play one down.
“There are some freshmen that’s playing [who] may not be happy -- but you’re playing as a freshman. You should be very proud.’’
UM has one receiver commitment in the 2019 recruiting class — four-star Jeremiah Peyton of Neptune Beach— and is seeking more players at the position.
The Hurricanes are preparing for their regular-season finale at home against Pittsburgh on Saturday (3:30 p.m., ESPN).