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Utes running back Tavion Thomas gets his chance to show Ohio State what it missed out on

The Dayton native had dreams of being a Buckeye, but took a winding path to Utah instead

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tavion Thomas during a Rose Bowl media session in Los Angeles on Tuesday, Dec. 28, 2021.

Los Angeles • Tavion Thomas exudes pride when he tells you he is a kid who grew up in Ohio.

More specifically, Thomas grew up in Dayton, playing football. Growing up in that part of the Rust Belt, while playing that sport, generally lends itself to rooting for the Big Ten powerhouse 70 miles east in Columbus.

“I used to love watching Ohio State, I definitely grew up watching them,” Thomas said earlier this week as Utah prepared to face the Buckeyes in the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day. “Braxton Miller and all those guys, I was a Zeke (Ezekiel Elliott) fan, too. It was pretty cool.”

As his star rose at Dunbar High School, major college programs ramped up the recruiting for the class of 2018 prospect, Ohio State among them. Thomas wanted to commit to the Buckeyes, and nearly did.

Then it all fell apart.

A winding, detour-filled football road has brought Thomas to this coincidental, potentially career-altering moment as a fourth-year sophomore.

The running back will suit up for the Utes on Saturday to play arguably the biggest game in program history. He will do so against the team he grew up loving, the program he originally wanted to play for. To that, add the fact that Thomas is still pondering his future. He has made no secret of the fact that he is considering leaving for the NFL Draft.

For multiple reasons, this Rose Bowl is the biggest moment of Thomas’ life.

“You dream of Ohio State”

Ohio State offered Thomas a scholarship in February 2017. Alabama had offered him days earlier. Then came Georgia and Michigan, USC and Texas, and a host of others, but again, keeping in mind where Thomas grew up and who he grew up rooting for, it didn’t take long to comprehend where this recruitment was going.

“Just being an Ohio kid, yeah, you dream of Ohio State,” Thomas’ high school coach, Darran Powell, said during a phone interview earlier this week. “Their running style, Urban Meyer was running ‘power spread,’ they were going to feed him the ball. He really enjoyed hearing that. If anything, the relationship he formed with Coach Alford was strong.”

Tony Alford has been Ohio State’s running backs coach, while carrying the tag of assistant head coach for offense, since 2015. Alford took a primary recruiting role in trying to get Thomas to remain in the Buckeye state for college.

“I used to talk to Coach Alford like every other day,” Thomas said. “We had a good relationship. It just didn’t go right at the end of the process. What I liked about Coach Alford is that he was a straightforward guy, that’s something I always respect. I want to play for a coach that’s straightforward, someone that’s not going to sugarcoat anything. He wasn’t just talking about football either.”

Added Powell: “You could really see he cared about Tavion, what he had going on, not solely football. He checked in, he wanted Tavion to do well in life, Tavion was ready. There was a point of trust. It started a little rocky, but once Tavion saw he was for real, he was ready to play for them at that moment. "

The end of the process came without Thomas giving Ohio State a verbal commitment. Instead, Ohio State told Thomas he first needed to go to a junior college. Such a request is not unprecedented, but it is not the norm. According to Powell, Ohio State’s reasoning was a mix of academic concerns and maturity concerns.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) celebrates the first touchdown of the night for Utah, in PAC-12 action between the Utah Utes and the Oregon Ducks. At Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

“It likely would have been for just the first semester,” Powell said. “They wanted to make sure he could handle college on his own, days on his own, and Coach Meyer was very honest about things. As far as grades, I think they could have gotten him into school, but it would have been very close.”

Thomas believed he would have to spend two years at a JUCO. He wanted to go straight to a four-year school, so he balked at the whole thing.

“I wasn’t really feeling that, so it’s a love-hate relationship now,” Thomas said with a smile. “This is something, I want to show what they missed out on.”

Thomas committed to Oklahoma on June 20, 2017. On Jan. 29, 2018, days before he would have been able to sign an NLI with the Sooners, he decommitted. Oklahoma, too, had concerns about academics and maturity, so they asked him to go to a JUCO, to which Thomas again balked.

Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell and one of his ace recruiters at the time, Dayton native and now Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman, had no such concerns. Thomas committed to the Bearcats, wound up making the grades, and avoided going to a junior college, at least for a while.

“I started appreciating everything”

Thomas’ time at Cincinnati lasted 12 games across two seasons.

After only playing in four of the first six games as a sophomore, and with Michael Warren II entrenched as the No. 1 running back, Fickell told reporters Thomas was likely to redshirt.

He left the program three weeks later before, ironically, ending up at Independence Community College in Kansas. Indy played a seven-game spring schedule in 2021 after the COVID-19 pandemic wiped out the traditional fall 2020 season. Thomas played in four of those spring games, amassing 347 yards and five touchdowns before being sent home for what has been labeled as an undisclosed reason.

“The crazy thing about it is, once I went JUCO, I started appreciating everything,” Thomas said. “My mental got stronger, I learned a lot. It probably would have been better to go to a JUCO the first time right out of high school.”

Added Powell: “Maturity-wise, he thought he was making decisions that were best for him, but he should have been more patient. He was forced to play the cards that were dealt to him.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) with the touchdown in the first half as the University of Utah hosts the UCLA Bruins in Pac-12 football, Saturday, Oct. 30, 2021 at Rice-Eccles Stadium.

Back in Dayton after leaving Kansas, Thomas spent some time living in his car, but never fully gave up on his football career. Believing he would be a fit in Utah’s system, he managed to make contact with Utes all-time running back Zack Moss, who helped Thomas out by inquiring with the coaching staff.

Utah coaches, specifically running backs coach Kiel McDonald agreed. Thomas committed to Utah on May 8 after receiving interest from lower-level FBS programs.

“I wouldn’t mind coming back ...”

After early-season ball-security issues got cleaned up, Thomas became a revelation this fall for a Utah offense that is generally predicated on the run.

His 1,041 rushing yards lead the Utes, as do his 20 rushing touchdowns, which broke the single-season program of 15 shared by Moss and John White. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, he has proven more than capable in pass protection as quarterback Cam Rising ascended to All-Pac-12 first-team honors.

All of this has led to much conjecture over Thomas’ future. As a slew of teammates have declared their intentions to enter the NFL Draft, Thomas has said publicly on two occasions since the Pac-12 championship game, including on Tuesday here in Southern California, that he won’t make a decision until after Saturday.

“I just want to see how my draft stock is, I need to see what the plan is,” Thomas said. “I wouldn’t mind, I would love to come back here for another year. I’m going to wait until everything is done, until after the season.”

Forgetting what another season at Utah would do for his draftability, another season would be a boon for the Utes offense, which is set to return at least Rising and two All-Pac-12 tight ends in Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid.

Looking at 2022 on paper at this still-too-early juncture, there is reason to believe that if Thomas returns and Utah is able to make more hay in the NCAA Transfer Portal, the Utes may start the season ranked inside the top 15.

“My teammates are on me good, and like I said, I wouldn’t mind coming back, running it back with them, back-to-back,” Thomas said. “Those are some great guys, so I definitely wouldn’t mind coming back to play with them, and Coach Whittingham, Coach Mac (Kiel McDonald). I definitely wouldn’t mind.”

Added Powell: “Another year would be beneficial, but he has to see where his draft stock is, what teams are saying before he makes a decision. There are other things to talk about here as far as the interview process, freedom, money, we’ll get serious about this after the game.

“Obviously, we’ll get it all figured out before the deadline (Jan. 17), but we have to decide what is beneficial, what’s best for him.”

There will be time for NFL Draft discussions, but those are on hold for a few more days. First, Thomas has business to tend to. The kid from Ohio is readying to play Ohio State, the school that wanted him, but ultimately passed. Thomas is intent on proving that was a mistake.

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