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SALT LAKE CITY — Tavion Thomas rushed for 102 yards and two touchdowns as the Utes rolled to an early-season victory over the visiting Weber State Wildcats. It was a one-game sample size, but Thomas appeared to have established himself as the lead back in a crowded running back room.
The junior college transfer, who also spent time at Cincinnati, had met the preseason hype and Utah was well on its way to having another capable back worthy of leading the Utes in rushing yards each week.
But as the weeks moved on, and the turnovers from fumbles mounted, that running back room alternated between three different players as the lead back each game rushing for over 100 yards — Micah Bernard led with 146 yards against BYU, TJ Pledger led with 117 yards against Washington State, and then Thomas led again with 113 yards against USC.
And now, six weeks into the season, Utah still doesn't have one lead back to rely on in an offense that traditionally feeds its star. And yet, the Utes as a team, are still within range of their standard rushing yards each season — if not down just slightly.
Still, the hope for the Utes coaching staff is to see more production in the run game to complement a passing game that was effective against USC and went for over 300 yards. And while each back has had his moments, Utah is left running with the guy with the "hot hand" that week.
"I'd say right now the hot hand is probably the best way to describe it. Nobody has really settled in and just taken over," Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham said. "Micah's had his moments, TJ Pledger had a great game a couple of weeks ago. You've seen Tavion a couple times, or a couple of games, have extensive production.
"They're all bringing something to the table, but right now, it's just kind of who's got the momentum and the hot hand in any given week."
That system has worked for Utah this season and is not totally unexpected. Before the season started running back coach Kiel McDonald said the team would utilize as many backs as possible to win games. While having one elite back or two backs to compliment each other would be ideal, McDonald said the team would do whatever was needed to win games.
Right now, that's with three backs with diverse skill sets.
Bernard has been used the most in game situations (167 total snaps) and has been effective at attacking the A-gaps, where he's rushing for 189 of his 271 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. But Bernard ranks third in his rushing grade with a 74.2.
Pledger has a more balanced spread in his rushing attempts and has seen the second-most action (100 total snaps), but has found his success attacking the B-gap, according to PFF. And while his production has been somewhat limited, he leads the running back room with the top rushing grade of 83.4.
And then there's Thomas, who has seen the least action (50 total snaps) due to his previous lack of "ball security." The 6-foot-2, 220-pound back features a balanced approach in his rushing attack and has been effective up the middle or off the edge, where he's been slightly more effective. Thomas has the second-highest rushing grade of 77.9, according to PFF.
As a room, it's a great compliment of skills that can allow Utah to attack various situations with proven backs. But Utah continues to look for that lead back to get the bulk of the carries — the guy that keeps the hot hand each week.
And while it's anyone's game to win, Utah has shown it believes Thomas can be that guy this season.
"Well, Tavion's a talent, we all know that," Whittingham said after the USC game. "He's had a little bit of a struggle with ball security earlier in the season. He's worked hard on it throughout the bye week and this past practice week, extensively. We put him in there, his ball security was great — didn't seem to be loose with the football — so we kept feeding it to him, and he ended up with over 100 yards.
"Hopefully, he's got some traction now and he can pick up where he left off next week."
The talent is there, but Thomas has to put it together on a consistent basis. The coaching staff sees his potential and has continued to work with him to get him back to a lead role. Past turnovers aside, Whittingham said the team wasn't going to give up on Thomas, even with other backs finding success on the field.
"I think coach McDonald has done an exceptional job of handling that situation because Tavion, rightfully so, has been a little frustrated at times, and coach McDonald has done a great job of coaching him and communicating with him and bringing him along," Whittingham said Tuesday.
The lead back job still feels like Thomas' job to lose.
"He's a great kid and wants to be great on the field," Whittingham added. "He has a very high ceiling, as you have seen when he does get extensive carries, and so we just need to continue to bring him along and help him become a complete back ... and he's on the right track right now, we believe.
"We'll see — knock on wood — but he's made a lot of progress and hopefully his contribution becomes increasingly more during the course of the last half of the season."