SALT LAKE CITY — When Tavion Thomas transferred into the Utah football program in May, there was hardly a splash.
Thomas came from the junior college ranks — an unheralded Independence Community College — and Utah had already picked up several four-star transfers into the program prior to his commitment. Adding another running back to an already deep room did little to move the needle, at least on the surface.
Look a little deeper and most missed out on a talented running back that has been overlooked for much of his collegiate career. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Thomas is a big back that commands attention in the run game. But out of the JUCO level, few even took a chance on Thomas.
It wasn't always that way, though. As a high school recruit, Thomas was ranked the 20th best running back in the country in the 2018 class, according to 247Sports, and had offers from all the top college football programs in the country — Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, USC and Wisconsin, among many others.
Thomas made an initial commitment to Oklahoma but decommitted seven months later when Ohio State showed more interest. But that interest dried up and Thomas eventually settled on hometown program Cincinnati where he played in four games before he was redshirted by head coach Luke Fickell. That decision led to Thomas transferring and landing at Independence.
"I really thought when I entered the transfer portal, I really thought schools were gonna come back," Thomas said. "I didn't know I was gonna have to take that JUCO route."
When Utah picked up Thomas, it was a bit of a steal for the coaching staff, even if few remembered who Thomas was years after his initial recruitment. But more importantly, it was an opportunity for Thomas to get into a Power Five program with a history of putting running backs into the NFL.
And while it was not an ideal situation for Thomas to move around and go through the JUCO level, he believes it was an opportunity to gain humility and push him to work harder and get to where he wants to be — "I just want to be known as the greatest — one of the best," he said.
"I feel like everything happened for a reason," Thomas said. "I feel like I needed to go back to that route to understand what I have in front of me — to appreciate the things that I have. I feel like I needed to go that route to humble me, you know, get me right. And I ended up at Utah, and now I feel like everything really happened for a reason, and now I'm happy where I'm at."
Best choice I made in my life right here 🤘🏾🙏🏾 Utah we lit this year fashoo— T.Thomas (@nextupp5) August 14, 2021
And from Day 1 of fall camp, Thomas has been arguably the most talked about running back. He's gone from a relative no-name addition to the guy that Kyle Whittingham singles out as a standout player after the team's first scrimmage of the season.
"We had some guys making plays," Whittingham said. "Tavion Thomas ran the ball well."
It's not much, but in Whittingham speak, that's worth its weight in gold to be singled out among three other talented running backs capable of being the No. 1 guy on many teams in the country. Whittingham has consistently mentioned Thomas in every interview given since camp started, even if he felt the sophomore running back came into camp "out of shape" and needing to drop some weight.
But Whittingham calls him a "great addition" to the team and one that could see significant playing time this year. And despite needing some time to be conditioned to the way Utah runs its offense, he's excelled in all he does.
So what does Utah get with Thomas?
"Bigger back — 230 — but sweet feet," running back coach Kiel McDonald said. "He's very light on his feet, he's very fast, he's elusive, so he's somebody who has experience."
Thomas said he's a "family man" and wants to "be known for just being a physical, tough dude. I love the game and will do anything for teammates on and off the field." He loves the competition and loves to play in Utah's offense.
"I always wanted to get behind on an offense like this, a downhill offense that's ready to take me and get me out of the backfield, show my versatility and stuff like that," he said.
The competition for the leading running back (or backs) remains tight and Whittingham said all four — Thomas, TJ Pledger, Chris Curry and Micah Bernard — will split the reps equally. That could change after the team's second scrimmage of camp on Saturday, but it's really up to the players and how they do moving forward.
"It just depends on when somebody wants to pull ahead," McDonald said. "That's their choice, and we're going to figure that out as fast as we possibly can. But if it goes into the season, it goes into the season — whatever it takes to win. But if somebody pulls apart and they take the lead, then we're going to run with that guy."
Sometimes, like in 2020 when dynamic back Ty Jordan emerged during the season as the premier back, it takes real game reps before a pecking order is settled.
"It's still those four still in the pack and Tavion is right up there," Whittingham added. "There's four guys that could potentially start right now; that could change by the end of the week or after Saturday; but right now, at this moment in time, all four guys are vying for the starting job."
For Thomas, who continues to get the most praise so far in camp, the competition seems to be leaning to him being one of the strongest contenders for a starting spot. And if that's the case, Thomas believes he's ready to showcase his talent like former Ute Zack Moss did when he became the program's all-time leading rusher.
"I'm coming for you Zack," Thomas quipped.
"I always want to play — I always play with the chip on the shoulder," he said. "I've been doubted a lot in my life, so it's like every day I try to come out with a chip on my shoulder and just do what I could do for the team and just play."