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From sidelined to the record books, Tavion Thomas' wild journey just beginning at Utah

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) hands the ball off the running back Tavion Thomas (9) during the game against the Stanford Cardinal in Stanford, Calif. on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021.

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising (7) hands the ball off the running back Tavion Thomas (9) during the game against the Stanford Cardinal in Stanford, Calif. on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. (Spenser Heaps, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 5-6 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — Tavion Thomas' collegiate career has been a circuitous and unpredictable ride.

His path to Utah was anything but routine — a highly-coveted running back who landed at Cincinnati before ending up in the junior college ranks — but it was one of a second chance of sorts for the dynamic playmaker from Dayton, Ohio.

Utah gave him his chance to be in a Power Five program, even with a handful of dynamic running backs in the room for him to compete against. But his journey within the program has been an emotional ride with ups and downs fit for a storybook season, though the pages are still being written to his book.

Coming to Utah "happened for a reason," Thomas said ahead of the season's first game, and soon enough that reason may include the 6-foot-2, 220-pound running back being added to Utah's history books if all goes as planned. And how his season started only makes the ending all that more impressive.

Kyle Whittingham and his coaching staff could see the talent, but Thomas couldn't hold onto the ball in the opening two games of the season.

His first fumble came in an inconsequential moment against Weber State in a season-opening win, but his second was a costly and tone-setting play against rival BYU in the opening minutes of a game Utah went on to lose. It was a moment filled with disappointment following such promise for the projected RB1. He knew he could do more on the field.

While not the only reason for Utah's loss, it set Thomas back a few games on the season. Utah's next two games against San Diego State and Washington State, Thomas combined for only two carries — one per game. In an instant, Thomas went from RB1 to barely seeing the field.

But the message remained clear: Utah's coaching staff had faith in Thomas and his ability to put the setbacks aside in a return to action. Whittingham stressed at the time that they weren't passing over Thomas or leaving him behind; he just had to show he could be trusted with the ball again.

Since then, Thomas has accounted for 12 rushing touchdowns in a five-game period and is the standalone favorite to lead the Utes in a run game that has received a big boost due to improved offensive line play. In fact, Thomas is the first player in Pac-12 history over the last 25 seasons to rush for four or more touchdowns in back-to-back weeks.

Thomas set the standard with four rushing touchdowns at home against UCLA and followed it up with another four rushing touchdowns in a blowout win on the road over Stanford — both tie the all-time record of touchdowns scored in a game.

It has the sophomore back one touchdown shy of tying the single-season rushing touchdown record of 15 at Utah, which was set by John White IV (2011) and Zack Moss (2019). In his last three games, alone, Thomas has amassed 10 rushing touchdowns.

Thomas now ranks sixth in the country in rushing touchdowns, three short of the nation's leader of Tyler Allgeier at BYU, and has 742 yards on the season for an average of 6.08 yards per carry. He leads Utah with an 89.5 offensive grade from Pro Football Focus, which is second only to Moss' high of 91.3 and Tyler Huntley's 90.0 grade in 2019.

All three players account for the highest offensive grades for a Utah player in the Pac-12 era.

"We're all good, we all dogs, and we all had our chance to show what we could do," running back Micah Bernard said. "Tavion, he's stolen the light, but we still all get our chances and it just feels good. Last week, all of us rushed for 100 yards, we could all still do that."

While nobody could predict the success Thomas would have after his shaky start to the season, Whittingham said there's a reason why the team wasn't going to give up on Thomas.

"It was just a matter of, early on, the ball security was not where it needed to be," Whittingham said Monday. "We by no means ever even considered giving up on him. We just knew we needed to continue to bring him along and get him to the point where everyone felt confident in him carrying the football and that he was going to protect it."

With three games left to the regular season, Thomas appears set to stamp his name in the Utah record books. And much of that success has come from the support and coaching he received from the staff and his teammates.

"I talked to him here and there just to make sure that he knows that he still has to be improving and focusing on that, and just trying to make sure that I'm there for him, even in those those tough situations." quarterback Cam Rising said of Thomas. "I'm just proud that he's been able to bounce back so well. He's done a great job with it."

All of that led to him playing with more confidence, which is the lifeblood of the sport and the position, Thomas said.

"You've gotta have confidence," Thomas said. "You don't want to go into the game just overthinking — I can't do this, I can't do that — so you just got to have that confidence, that dog in you, to play the running back position."

That confidence will go a long way to help Utah, but it's just the beginning for Thomas.

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