At the start of Utah’s fall camp, sophomore running back Tavion Thomas was somewhat overweight and somewhat overlooked.

Joining a group that included Oklahoma transfer T.J. Pledger and LSU transfer Chris Curry, Thomas arrived on campus in June after stints at Cincinnati and Independence Community College. 

Why did Thomas, a Dayton, Ohio, native, want to be a Ute?

“The history of the running backs,” he said. “I know they’re a tough, nasty program. I wanted to be a part of that.”

Thomas has carefully watched Zack Moss, who became Utah’s all-time leading rusher and now plays for the Buffalo Bills. 

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“The system and the scheme here fits me very well,” he said. “I wanted a shot at that.”

A couple of weeks into fall camp, Thomas has trimmed down. And he’s impressed coach Kyle Whittingham as he battles for the starting job. 

After Saturday’s scrimmage, Whittingham said Thomas is becoming an all-around running back. 

“I don’t want to take away from what the other three are doing as well because Chris Curry, T.J. Pledger and Micah Bernard are all performing well,” Whittingham said. “But today in particular Tavion looked very good.”

“Tavion is really blossoming right now,” center Nick Ford said following the scrimmage.

On Monday, Whittingham said the running back competition remains intense. 

“Those four are still in a pack. Tavion is right up there. There’s four guys that could potentially start right now,” he said. “That could change by the end of the week or by Saturday. But right now, all four guys are vying for the starting job.”

Utah running back Tavion Thomas listens to the instruction of a coach during fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. Thomas is one of three running backs who transferred into the program during the offseason, although the least heralded. | University of Utah Athletics

Thomas thrives in this kind of atmosphere.  

“It’s great competition. That’s why I came here,” he said. “I’m a competitor. I love to compete.”

At the start of fall camp, Thomas weighed 240 pounds but now he’s under 230. 

“It’s been good. They’ve got me doing some extra running to lose this dad gut,” Thomas said, laughing. “I’m moving better. I’ve been listening to what they’re telling me to do and it’s going smooth.”

Thomas rushed for 1,663 yards and 24 touchdowns as a senior at Dunbar High, where he also played basketball and ran track, anchoring the 2017 state championship 4x100 meter relay team. 

“It’s been good. They’ve got me doing some extra running to lose this dad gut. I’m moving better. I’ve been listening to what they’re telling me to do and it’s going smooth.” — Utah running back Tavion Thomas

A three-star recruit, Thomas was rated the No. 18 running back in the nation. 

At Cincinnati, Thomas ran for 499 yards and six touchdowns on 89 carries as a freshman. As a sophomore, he played in four games with the Bearcats, gaining 190 yards on 40 carries and a TD before transferring to Independence CC.

At Independence, Thomas ran 50 times for 347 yards and five touchdowns in 2020. 

Whittingham is hopeful that Thomas and the rest of his running backs have the firepower the offense needs. 

“Some are more explosive than others. But each one is capable of explosive plays,” he said. “T.J. and Micah are the guys right now showing the most explosiveness. Chris Curry is more of a hammer inside and Tavion’s still trying to get himself where he needs to be physically. He has big-play capability, I believe. You look at his JC tape, he certainly did, so that’s what we expect out of him.”

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Offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig enjoys the depth he has at running back but he’d like to choose a starter. 

“It’s a real luxury to be able to split up those reps. We’d like to identify one individual to be the lead ball-carrier but there are four young men that are competing every day with an exceptional skill set,” he said. “Each one does something a little bit different. It allows us to be real creative in the way that we use all the various tools and skill sets.”

Curry, who won a national championship with LSU in 2019, describes the running backs room as “a big stable. We’ve got speed guys, we’ve got power guys, we’ve got guys that are shifty. We’re all trying to gel together and taking bits and pieces of everybody’s game and gelling into one.”

Pledger ran for 695 yards and six touchdowns in 30 games at Oklahoma from 2018-20. He said making explosive plays is one of his strengths.

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“Being able to touch the ball coming out of the backfield and taking it 60 yards,” Pledger said. “That’s one of the biggest attributes I’m ready to show this year in the Pac-12, my ability to take it to the house.”

Running backs coach Kiel McDonald said Pledger brings “fire, passion, competitive spirit. He’s somebody that speaks up and is vocal. He’s very elusive and has good ball skills and he can protect and run for power. That big-game experience. He’s been in a lot of big games at the University of Oklahoma.”

Thomas said he’s learning from both Pledger and Curry as he competes for the starting job. 

“I’m asking them a lot of questions. They probably get tired of it,” he said. “They’ve got good game experience. I try to ask them questions to help me get better. They’re helping me.”

In Utah’s four-way race at running back, Thomas has been making his mark.