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Why a more focused, more serious Tavion Thomas is so vital to Utes’ offense

The Utes again will be counting on Thomas heavily this season after he broke the school’s single-season rushing touchdown record in 2021.

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Utah running back Tavion Thomas gets in some work during first day of fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Utah running back Tavion Thomas gets in some work during the first day of fall camp at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

Hunter Dyke, Utah Athletics

Running back Tavion Thomas is grateful for the year he has spent in Utah’s football program. 

He has certainly found a home with the Utes.

“I’ve got a lot of experience here. Everything is slowing down for me,” Thomas said. “I’ve gained some friendships here, some good relationships here. I’ve learned the culture.”

And Utah will be counting on him heavily this season after he broke the school’s single-season rushing touchdown record with 21 and also rushed for more than 1,000 yards in 2021.

“When you get to the NFL level, you can’t get away with certain things that you can get away with in college. Your bad day could possibly be your last day. I have to train these guys to understand that you have to bring it every day.” — Utah RBs coach Quinton Ganther on keeping his running backs motivated

Thomas took quite a circuitous route to Salt Lake City. After starring at Dunbar High in Ohio, Thomas signed with Cincinnati. Later, he transferred to Independence Community College. 

A year ago Thomas arrived on Utah’s campus and he reported to fall camp a little out of shape. He had to work hard to shed 10 pounds. 

In the season opener against Weber State, Thomas rushed for 107 yards and two touchdowns — but he also fumbled in each of the first two games of the season, significantly limiting his playing time. He had only two carries in the next two games. 

But everything changed in the win at USC, where Thomas ran 16 times for 113 yards, including a 43-yard touchdown sprint

Against UCLA, he gained 160 yards and scored four touchdowns. Against Stanford, Thomas rushed for a career-high 177 yards and scored four TDs. 

During the season, Thomas appreciated the support within the program for not giving up on him when he was struggling with ball security.

“It’s a blessing to know that my teammates and coaches have started to trust me again,” he said. “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.”

For the season, Thomas earned Pac-12 All-Conference first team honors, and ranked No. 3 in the FBS in rushing touchdowns. He ran for 1,108 yards on 204 carries. 

Along the way, Thomas established himself as the next standout Ute running back.

Not surprisingly, Thomas was named to the 2022 Doak Walker Award watch list.

“It means a lot to me. But right now I’m focused on the season,” he said of the preseason recognition. “If the awards come, of course I’d be honored. But I’m trying to get the season underway and focus on that right now.”

While Thomas has established himself as an every-down back, the Utes have strong depth at that position, with Micah Bernard, Chris Curry and Jaylon Glover among those also in the mix. 

“It’s an open competition and it’s a good group,” said offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig. “It’s good but obviously we know what Tavion Thomas is all about and what a weapon he can be in this offense.”

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Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas talks to a member of the media after the first day of fall camp outside of the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2022.

Kristin Murphy, Deseret News

Thomas embraces the competition at running back. 

“We’ve got to come out and compete every day. The job ain’t promised,” he said. “You’ve got to come compete and work hard and do the little things right. Whoever gets in can do their thing. Any one of us. That’s motivated me.”

First-year Utah running backs coach Quinton Ganther loves the talent he’s inherited, including Thomas.

“The thing with me is, I’m going to try to push and get every ounce of everything they’re capable of out of them,” Ganther said. “I don’t want any of them to get comfortable. I don’t want Tavion to think he’s made it and get comfortable and that he doesn’t want to work. Something like that happens if the next guy up is as productive, I’m not going for it. I want it to be high competition.

“When you get to the NFL level, you can’t get away with certain things that you can get away with in college. Your bad day could possibly be your last day. I have to train these guys to understand that you have to bring it every day.”

Left tackle Braeden Daniels and the rest of the offensive line enjoys blocking for Thomas. 

“Having a guy like that running behind you is awesome,” Daniels said. “The defenses fear you before you even play them. It’s honestly great. He’ll keep working and doing his thing.”

On the first day of camp, Thomas soaked it all in, knowing this is his final season of college football. 

“I feel like I’m more focused. I’m more serious. I want it more,” he said. “Keep attacking it day by day and have fun with it, too.”

Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas celebrates as he scores against Ohio State

Utah running back Tavion Thomas scores against Ohio State in the 108th Rose Bowl game in Pasadena, Calif., on Saturday, Jan. 1, 2022.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News