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How Tavion Thomas went from homelessness to finding a place at Utah

Fortunately for Thomas, he had plenty of people on his side, like his junior college coach at Independence Community College, helping him and encouraging him not to give up on his dreams

Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs for yardage in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.
Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) runs for yardage in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Not long ago, Utah running back Tavion Thomas thought his college football career might be over. Not only that, he didn’t even have a bed to call his own.

But now, after helping the Utes beat USC and Arizona State in back-to-back weeks, Thomas is savoring these moments.

“It’s been unbelievable. It still feels like a dream,” he said. “I’m all the way from Ohio. I love it here. Great vibes. I love everything about this place. It’s really beautiful.”

As the 6-foot-2, 221-pound Dayton, Ohio, native described in a tweet after last Saturday’s 35-21 victory over ASU, “It’s crazy how just a few months ago I was just sleeping in my car watchin’ college football on my cell phone wishing I could get another shot to play the game that I love.”

So how did Thomas get into that situation — and how did he get out of it?

Well, it’s kind of complicated. “It was COVID and stuff back home. Family stuff,” he said.

Fortunately for Thomas, he had plenty of people on his side, like his junior college coach at Independence Community College, helping him and encouraging him not to give up on his dreams.

“I had some people that were helping me, giving me some money, food,” he said. “They told me to keep positive thoughts and fight through adversity. It was on me heavy. It was hard at the time but I knew my why. I thanked my juco coach for letting me go there. Everything changed from there. I picked the football back up and it was the best choice I made.”

But there was a time when Thomas wondered if he’d play again. No teams were recruiting him after a four-game junior college season impacted by COVID-19.

“I didn’t really know my next move. It was hard,” he said. “I know God has a plan. I’ve kept the faith and now I’m here and I can’t look back.”

Thomas reached out to former Utah star Zack Moss, the school’s all-time leading rusher who is now playing for the Buffalo Bills. Utah coaches watched Thomas’ film but the program didn’t have room for another running back at the time.

Eventually, Thomas connected with running backs coach Kiel McDonald. A spot opened up and Thomas arrived in Salt Lake City last summer.

“When I first saw him I was like, ‘Wow, this is a big running back right here. It’s nice to have a guy like (former Alabama running back and Pittsburgh Steelers rookie) Najee Harris,’” said quarterback Cam Rising. “I was just excited. I knew he’s a phenomenal player when he first got here and I was excited to see him go.”

But things didn’t go smoothly at first for Thomas. He reported to fall camp overweight and had to work hard to shed about 10 pounds.

While he rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Weber State, he fumbled in each of the first two games of the season, significantly limiting his playing time. Thomas had a total of two carries in the next two games.

Once again, his career seemed to be teetering on the brink as he went to work on his ball security issues.

But against USC, Thomas rushed 16 times for 113 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown run. Last week against Arizona State, he had 20 carries for 84 yards and a TD.

And, just as importantly, not one fumble in those two wins.

Coach Kyle Whittingham said Thomas’ progress “has been a process” that started last summer.

“We had some things to clean up,” Whittingham said. “We didn’t have him in spring ball. He came in the summer. He had ball security issues early in the season that showed up a couple of times. That’s been a work in progress. Pass protection and blitz pickup takes some time.”

Whittingham also praised McDonald’s work with Thomas.

“Kiel McDonald has done an outstanding job with him. He’s a big-time back. He’s a load. I think you’re going to see him to continue to get even better,” Whittingham said. “As long as he doesn’t take a step backward in ball security or any of those other things, he’s going to be a big part of what we’re doing moving forward.”

The process of getting back on the field has involved “paying attention to the little details,” Thomas said. “Spending time working on the stuff I need to work on. It’s helped me … My team has helped me get my confidence back. They push me every day in practice and in the weight room. I feel like that’s been a big part of my success.

“It’s a blessing to know that my teammates and coaches have started to trust me again. I’m thankful for them giving me another chance and believing in me. That was really important to know they ain’t giving up on me.”

McDonald said the difference for Thomas has been his ability to hang on to the football.

“It’s just that simple,” McDonald said. “This is a young man that we’ve raved about since the summer time. You can see that there’s nothing he can’t do. He’s just got to protect the football, protect the team. He’s doing that right now and he’s got to continue to get better each week.”

McDonald added that Thomas has become more self-assured in recent weeks.

“He’s become more confident,” McDonald said. “He’s starting to step up and make more plays. When you talk about his mental part of his game, confidence is everything. He’s more confident now than ever.”

“He’s pounding the ball down there,” Rising said of Thomas. “It makes the whole entire offense’s job easy because he’s an eraser with that ball. He can run through a tackle. He’s a difference-maker.”

Rising is impressed with the way Thomas has rebounded from his early-season mistakes.

“He’s been taking practices and all of the ball security drills seriously,” Rising said. “He’s been doing a great job with it and taking pride in having great ball security. That’s why he’s been so much better lately.”

For Thomas, he’s simply happy that his life, and his football career, are much more settled than they were months ago.

“I’m grateful just to have a bed. I don’t care where I live, an apartment, wherever. I’ve got somewhere to lay my head,” he said. “As long as I’m somewhere comfortable to lay my head and have my own space, I’m good with it.”

Thomas is creating his own space on the football field, in large swaths. And the Utes’ offense is loving it.

Certainly, Thomas has found a home at Utah.