‘It’s great to see him back’: Tavion Thomas’ return comes at opportune time as Utah visits Oregon
This season, Thomas started strong, rushing for 115 yards against Florida. But after dealing with off-field issues, he hadn’t run for more than 100 until he ran for a career-high 180 against Stanford
Amid what’s been a checkered season for Utah running back Tavion Thomas, he reemerged at a good time.
After playing sparingly, or not at all, for several weeks, Thomas rushed for a career-high 180 yards and two touchdowns in a 42-7 win over Stanford last Saturday in his final game at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
Coach Kyle Whittingham handed Thomas the game ball after the win over the Cardinal.
The Utes are thrilled to have Thomas, who rushed for more than 1,000 yards last year, looking like his old self as they visit Oregon Saturday (8:30 p.m. MST, ESPN).
“It was great to see him flying around with the ball, making plays,” said quarterback Cam Rising. “I love him out there, having fun. It’s a good sight to see. We’ve just got to keep it rolling.”
Last year in two dominating victories over the Ducks, Thomas rushed 21 times for 94 yards and three touchdowns in a 38-7 victory at Rice-Eccles Stadium; then he ran 18 times for 63 yards and two TDs in a 38-10 win in the Pac-12 championship game.
This season, Thomas started strong, rushing for 115 yards against Florida, but he hadn’t run for more than 100 until the Stanford game.
In between, Thomas ran for 59 yards against San Diego State in mid-September as he was dealing with a death in his family that week.
Then he missed the first half of the Arizona State game. Whittingham said Thomas was available in the first half but it was an “internal” decision not to play him.
After Thomas rushed for 91 yards in a loss to UCLA, there was a report that he left the sideline during the Utes’ win over USC.
Whittingham has been vague when discussing Thomas’ issues since then.
But after Saturday’s game, Whittingham reflected on the process of getting Thomas back to this point, where he’s productive again.
“For a while there, it was a couple of steps forward, three steps backward. There were some bumps in the road,” he said.
“But Tavion’s in a good place right now. I’m really grateful that he continued to stick with it and fight through some of the issues that we were having. We didn’t give up on him either. That’s about as much as I can go into it … Grateful that he’s with us. Great to see him go out in his last game at Rice-Eccles on such a positive note.”
For Thomas, it’s been a difficult stretch.
“It’s been challenging, but you can’t run from it. You’ve got to attack it. I’ve got great guys and a great support system here and they got me back slowly but surely,” he said.
“Right now, I’m focused on getting back with the guys and finishing the whole season out and trying to repeat back-to-back championships.”
The Utes realize how much Thomas’ return helps the entire offense.
“He knew exactly what he needed to do the whole time,” Rising said. “He had to take care of some things and we’re just happy to have him back now. It’s great to see him in the building.”
Added wide receiver Devaughn Vele: “It’s great to see him back to where he normally produces. I know he’s had a tough road and he’s one heckuva human being to fight back against everything that was against him. Kudos to him.
“I’m grateful that he’s understanding the vital importance he has on our team. As he goes, the team goes. That’s how every position group is. Everybody needs to mesh together. Having him back is a vital piece of our offense. That’s what we’ve needed. That’s the perfect thing to have that momentum go with us as we travel to Oregon.”
Said left tackle Braeden Daniels: “Tavion’s a great player. He plays with a lot of passion and energy. He brings a lot of juice to the offense. Having a guy that could fall for three extra yards and get us a first down, it’s always a great feeling.
“At the end of the day, we have to own the line of scrimmage and dominate in the trenches.”
Vele said he appreciates Thomas’ perseverance.
“What I’ve seen is a selfless person. He was going through some things but he found it in himself to understand that he has family here on this team that he can look towards and trust in us.
“Seeing him doing that, that’s what gained that trust for us to put him back out there. We knew he was going through so many things and we didn’t want to force him into anything or put too much pressure on him. Having him step up like that was crucial.”
Daniels said Utah’s culture lifted up Thomas.
“All we can do is put your arm around him and help him however we can, however he needs. Something we preach on in this program is the family atmosphere. You have to be like a brother, put your arm around him and take care of him.”
Rising said having Thomas back on a regular basis “makes a world of difference” for the offense.
“Especially when you get that play-action going because you are running the ball downhill and making plays. It gets the receivers more involved, especially getting more man-to-man coverage out there. It’s always great to have that running game going.”
Against Stanford “the O-line did a great job dominating the line of scrimmage,” Rising added. “Every time we do that, a guy like Tavion Thomas is just going to take it and run with it. It was great to see.”
Thomas enjoyed his last game at Rice-Eccles Stadium after two seasons in the program.
“It’s been a long journey. Great fans, great atmosphere out there,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I’ve never been a part of nothing like that. It’s pretty awesome.”
Now, Thomas is hoping to help the Utes beat Oregon — and capture another Pac-12 title.
Utes on the air
No. 13 Utah (8-2, 6-1) at No. 6 Oregon (8-2, 6-1)
Saturday, 8:30 p.m. MST
Radio: ESPN 700