LOS ANGELES — There was a time when Tavion Thomas would have loved to run the football and score touchdowns for Ohio State.

Rose Bowl

No. 6 Ohio State (10-2)

vs. No. 11 Utah (10-3) 

Jan. 1, 3 p.m. MST

Rose Bowl

Pasadena, California


Radio: ESPN 700

But as fate, and circumstances, would have it, Thomas is Utah’s starting running back going into the Rose Bowl Saturday (3 p.m. MST, ESPN) against the Buckeyes.

The 6-foot-2, 221-pound sophomore, who has rushed 186 times for 1,041 yards and 20 touchdowns this season for the Utes, hails from Dayton, Ohio, and grew up watching Ohio State football. 

His feelings have changed along the way.

“It’s a love-hate relationship,” said Thomas, who is eager “just to show them what they missed out on.”

Playing the Buckeyes, especially on a big stage, is “a big thing,” Thomas said. 

OSU recruited Thomas out of Dunbar High, but the Buckeye coaches wanted him to play at a junior college first. Thomas was named Ohio Prep Sportswriters Association first-team All-Ohio as a senior. He was disappointed when he heard that evaluation and he didn’t want to go to a junior college. 

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Apparently, at the time, OSU was doubting Thomas.

“That was kind of hard for me,” he said. 

So Thomas signed with Cincinnati, where he played in four games in 2019. In fact, he played against Ohio State that season, when the Buckeyes drubbed the Bearcats 42-0. 

“I still have that bad taste in my mouth,” Thomas said about that game. “To play those boys again will be a great experience.”

As it turned out, Thomas left Cincinnati and ultimately did play at a JUCO — Independence Community College, where he rushed for 347 yards on 50 carries with five touchdowns in 2020. 

Last summer, he signed with Utah

Quarterback Cam Rising knew Thomas was going to help his team when he first saw Thomas on campus.

“He did a workout and just saw him move and do everything with his thighs,” Rising said. “I thought he was going to be special. Once I saw him put on the pads, I knew for sure.”

Utah Utes quarterback Cameron Rising hands the ball off to running back Tavion Thomas.
Utah quarterback Cameron Rising hands the ball off to running back Tavion Thomas during the game against Stanford in Stanford, Calif., on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. It didn’t take Rising long to realize Thomas was a keeper. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News

But early in the season, Thomas struggled holding onto the ball. His fumbles against Weber State and BYU put him on the bench. 

Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig and the rest of the coaching staff was patient with Thomas and gave him more chances, which proved to be the right decision. 

“He’s an excellent downhill runner. He’s got good vision and (is) deceptively fast for a big guy, but he is a load to tackle. It’s going to take a couple guys to get him down on the ground,” Ludwig said. “But his physicality, his presence in the offense was a big catalyst of this offense taking a jump about halfway through the season.

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“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,’” Ludwig added. “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. … So he’s had great growth as a football player, as a person, as he learns and adapts the Utah football culture.”

For Thomas’ teammates, it’s been gratifying to watch him thrive. 

“When you can give a guy the ball and watch him go really, it’s always a fun time,” Rising said. “We have a great five guys blocking for him, and it makes it easier for him. He knows how to hit those holes. It’s easy when you’re giving him a ball on a third-and-6 and he can go get it and stuff like that. Just a lot of confidence in him in whatever he’s doing.”

Thomas, T.J. Pledger and Micah Bernard give the Utes a powerful and diverse threat on the ground. 

“He’s a bruiser. He runs the ball downhill. He’s an Ohio kid, so he’ll be geeked up for this one I am sure. He’s a really good player.” — OSU’s secondary coach, Matt Barnes on Tavion Thomas

“Tavion’s a very talented back. He’s a big back that’s hard to tackle. He’s a great person off the field. He has definitely helped this offense flourish, as well as T.J. and Micah,” said center Nick Ford. “Now, I feel like all three of our main backs are very talented and talented in their own ways. They complement each other. You can’t have the same intention going after Tavion that you have going after T.J. or Micah. That allows us to do different things in our offense.”

Of course, Thomas, and the rest of the Ute running backs, are on Ohio State’s radar. 

“He’s a bruiser. He runs the ball downhill. He’s an Ohio kid, so he’ll be geeked up for this one I am sure. He’s a really good player,” said Matt Barnes, OSU’s secondary coach. “They’ve kind of got a basketball team at running back as well. They’ve got a big guy that leans on you, and he’s hard to bring down.”

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“His frame is kind of different than everybody else’s. He’s kind of got a bigger frame than a lot of the backs we’ve played. We’re just going to play him like any other back. Those are the backs you’ve got to make them feel you. You’ve got to put bodies on them,” OSU defensive end Tyreke Smith said of Thomas. “You’ve got to swarm to the ball, swarm and tackle. With teams like this that like to run the ball, you’ve got to make sure you get them on the ground.”

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Thomas said he’ll decide after Saturday’s game whether to return to Utah for another season. 

For now, he’s focused on the present, not the future.

As far as his past, yeah, there was a time when he would have loved to play for Ohio State. But he’s thrilled about how things have worked out for him with Utah.

“I’m here in California for the Rose Bowl,” Thomas said, laughing. “It’s amazing.”

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