Once you get beyond the noise being produced at the University of Utah by the ongoing quarterback competition between Charlie Brewer and Cameron Rising, there is a bit of depth chart interest playing out inside the running backs room.
That position is in the middle of a significant shift this summer. Ty Jordan’s tragic Christmas night death, plus the transfers of Devin Brumfield and Jordan Wilmore late in the 2020 season have given way to Oklahoma transfer TJ Pledger, LSU transfer Chris Curry, junior college recruit Tavion Thomas, and the lone holdover from the 2020 depth chart, third-year freshman Micah Bernard, vying for carries.
Thomas, who played 12 games across 2018 and 2019 at Cincinnati before transferring to Independence (Kan.) Community College, is not like the other three guys. One could argue more is expected of him than the other three guys.
“He has to be ready to go,” Utes running backs coach and ace recruiter Kiel McDonald said Monday after Utah completed its fifth of 25 preseason practices. “Freshman? You’ve got a little more time with those guys. We’re trying to fill a hole that is very, very big at Utah. You’re talking about a kid (Jordan) that was an All-American, that was an all-conference kid, and Freshman of the Year, so when you’re trying to fill that void, you’re trying to find a kid that can come in and compete right now.”
These early days of Utah camp have led one to wonder what exactly the Utes might have in Thomas, who rushed for 347 yards and five touchdowns on just 50 carries over a seven-game, COVID-impacted spring schedule.
Thomas was a late commit, pledging to Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham on May 8, in the middle of his spring season, and almost two months after the Utes finished up spring practice with Curry, Pledger, and Bernard getting all of the work at running back.
Practice is closed to the media, but there have been three opportunities since practice began on Wednesday to speak to Whittingham. In two of those instances, early returns on Thomas were broached by reporters. In both of those instances, Whittingham had positive things to say, but also noted Thomas is out of shape. The latter factor is getting worked out, day by day as camp rolls on and the Sept. 2 opener vs. Weber State looms.
“Very good, very good,” Whittingham said to a question regarding how Thomas has come along since camp started. “He’s still a little out of shape. He was 240 the last time we talked, right now he’s about 230-ish. He’s getting to where he needs to be. He’s still five pounds away, but his stamina is increasing, his knowledge of the scheme is increasing. In his downtime, he’s taking time to study and learn the playbook, so he’s coming along just fine.”
Added Thomas: “The transition has been smooth. I’m picking up the offense pretty good, O-line is blocking. Everything going on since I’ve been here has been very smooth.”
McDonald half-jokingly referenced Thomas weighing 230 pounds on Wednesday, but the truth of the matter is, Utah does not have another running back with nearly that type of size. It certainly does not have another option standing 6-foot-2 like Thomas, so what does the end result look like here?
This is Bernard’s third year in the program, so he has the most experience working with offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, but his career encompasses just 15 carries for 76 yards.
Whittingham has called Pledger more of a scatback, with his best comparison being former Utes running back John White, who registered back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2011 and 2012. Curry has been described by Whittingham as “more tackle-to-tackle,” but with the speed and quickness to get outside when necessary.”
Maybe Thomas is a bit of an enigma thanks to his JUCO pitstop, but his 179 rushes as a collegian - 129 at Cincinnati and 50 at ICC - make him the most-experienced option at Utah’s disposal.
“All of them, they’re well-rounded, and you have to be well-rounded in this offense,” McDonald said. “You have to be able to catch the ball, you have to be able to run routes, you have to be able to protect, you have to be able to run for power, speed. All of those guys, whether they’re bigger or smaller, they have all of those attributes.”