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Tavion Thomas has Ohio State to thank for his path with Utes

Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas speaks with reporters during a press conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, about the upcoming Rose Bowl.

Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas speaks with reporters during a press conference in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021, about the upcoming Rose Bowl. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

LOS ANGELES — In another universe, another alternate dimension maybe, Tavion Thomas would be suiting up for the Scarlet and Gray as it prepares for another Rose Bowl appearance.

As a Dayton, Ohio, native, nothing could have been sweeter to play for his favorite college team Ohio State.

Thomas watched with admiration as Braxton Miller transformed from the team's quarterback to a wide receiver. There was also his favorite running back, Ezekiel Elliott, who dominated for the Buckeyes before being drafted by the Dallas Cowboys.

Thomas wanted to be a part of that great lineage of players to suit up for Ohio State and was ready to sign whatever was needed to make it a reality. And fortunately for Thomas, the feeling was mutual for Ohio State after he rushed for 1,663 yards and scored 24 touchdowns his senior season at Dunbar High.

But that's where the Ohio State dream ended.

The Buckeyes coaching staff, namely running back coach Tony Alford, wanted Thomas to take the junior college route before eventually enrolling at Ohio State — Thomas needed help with his grades.

"That was really kind of hard for me doing all that," Thomas said Tuesday. "When he said that, I'm like, 'Man, am I not worthy enough' and I had doubts in my mind and stuff like that. But it is what it is."

Thomas pushed back on the idea, thinking he'd be trapped in the JUCO ranks for at least two years, so he settled with hometown school Cincinnati. To add salt to the wound, Cincinnati got beat 42-0 by Ohio State his sophomore season. "I've still got that bad taste in my mouth," he said.

It was never a great fit for the 6-foot-2 running back and the transfer portal didn't open up any options like he thought, so the JUCO path became a reality. That is until Utah suddenly needed a running back to fill the void left by the tragic death of Ty Jordan.

Thomas now sits primed and ready — and more mature — to take on an Ohio State team as Utah's lead back in the first Rose Bowl appearance in program history. It's an "amazing" feeling, he said, and one he's reflected on multiple times since the team traveled to Los Angeles this week. The path, he added, is something is doesn't regret at all.

He's rushed for 1,041 yards and 20 touchdowns — the Utah all-time single-season rushing touchdown record — this season and was named to the Pac-12 All-Conference first-team. The sophomore running back has Ohio State to thank for his journey, even if he'll be responsible for leading the ground game in Utah's pursuit to beat the Buckeyes.

And he's ready to finally leave his mark against his once favorite university.

"Just to show them, like, what they missed out on, stuff like that," Thomas said.

Utah knew from the beginning it had a special running back on its hands when they got him from the transfer portal. And once Thomas overcame some early-season fumbling issues, it was a game changer for Utah's offense.

"I think a big red light went on, and Tavion said, 'I'm going to get this fixed or else I'm not going to play,'" Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said. "That ball came out a couple times the first couple games of the year, and he came off the field. He wants to play. He wants to be an impact player in this program. He identified the issue and he got the issue corrected. It's a daily process in terms of focusing on ball security, and I'm very pleased with his development and where he is right now.

"His presence in the offense was a big catalyst of this offense taking a jump about halfway through the season."

Thomas may have thought his Power Five dream was over, but now he gets the chance to get redemption against the team where it all began — and potentially secure Utah's first Rose Bowl win.

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