How Utes running back Tavion Thomas is finding his way after bumpy start to season

The running back has kept his confidence up through his position coach and his mother.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) celebrates a touchdown in PAC-12 football action between the University of Utah and Weber State at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Thursday, Sept. 2, 2021.

Tavion Thomas turned on the nitrous in his engine as he received the handoff from Cam Rising. It was early in the third quarter and the University of Utah football team was already spanking USC, but Thomas ran the ball down the Trojan defensive line’s throat like his team was trailing.

Thomas ran in the 43-yard touchdown with little resistance from the USC defense. Once he reached the end zone, he stretched out both arms as though he were flying.

It may have been a moment of catharsis for the junior college transfer.

“It was a dream come true,” Thomas said of the performance that marked the second time this season he reached more than 100 yards rushing.

But before USC, Thomas wasn’t getting as many carries. After a solid debut performance, Thomas struggled to hold on to the ball, which contributed to him being lower on the running back totem pole. But he did much better on that front Saturday, coach Kyle Whittingham said.

“The ball security was outstanding, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Whittingham said of Thomas. “That was really the primary thing that Tavion needed to work on and, at least for that game, seemed to get that corrected. So if that continues, he’ll continue to get the ball. And if we can continue to get that production out of him, that is a big help to our offense.”

It’s just one game, though. And Thomas has experienced enough adversity in his young football career to know that one game isn’t enough to be satisfied.

Coming out of high school in Dayton, Ohio, Thomas was a three-star recruit and considered among the top 20 running backs in the country. He initially committed to the University of Oklahoma before eventually signing with Cincinnati, where he played 14 games.

Thomas then left Cincinnati and transferred to Independence Community College in Kansas, where he played five games and amassed 347 yards and five touchdowns. Then he committed to the Utes in May.

“It’s been difficult at times, but the stuff I went through made me realize you just have to keep working hard and just keep your head down, just working, just keep pushing because you never know when your name might be called,” Thomas said.

Whittingham said running backs coach Kiel McDonald has done an “exceptional job” at helping Thomas keep his confidence up during a time that is been frustrating for him as a player. Thomas agreed.

“He just didn’t give up on me,” Thomas said of McDonald. “He really believed in me, and I feel that. So it’s easy for me to work hard for him and stuff like that because he be on me. He doesn’t let me do whatever I want to do, so I like that.”

But perhaps Thomas’s biggest motivator is his mother, Rena, with whom he speaks every other day. He said his mother is a strong woman and inspires him to push through his struggles because of how she’s handled her own.

“I’ve seen my mom go through a lot,” Thomas said. “So the stuff I’m going through, I can think about what she’s been through and it just makes me just keep working.”

The Utes have been high on Thomas all season and believe he’s on the right track to being a truly great running back for the team. And with the lessons he’s learned from his time at other programs before arriving in Utah, it just might happen.

“I just want to keep working and I’m just hungry for it this year,” Thomas said. ”I don’t want to just let up and go back down a bad road that I was at. I’m trying some different.”