Utah football’s Tavion Thomas to return in 2022 after setting a school record for touchdowns

The running back rushed for 1,108 yards and 21 touchdowns last season for the Utes

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9( runs the ball for the Utes, 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.

The University of Utah football program will be getting one more year out of one of its most important offensive weapons.

Fourth-year sophomore running back Tavion Thomas announced on Thursday that he will return to Salt Lake City for the 2022 season instead of declaring for the 2022 NFL draft.

Thomas was a revelation during the 2021 season, rushing for 1,108 yards and a program single-season record 21 touchdowns, while averaging 5.4 yards per carry.

“It was definitely a tough decision,” said Darran Powell, Thomas’ coach at Dunbar High School in Dayton, Ohio, and a man who remains connected to the running back. “He feels like he has unfinished business, things to prove to scouts, he wants to open up his game a little bit.

“I think he loves the environment, he loves being around the guys.”

The last time Thomas met the media was Dec. 28 in Los Angeles, four days before Utah played in its first Rose Bowl. Thomas had made no secret of the fact he was considering leaving for the NFL draft, but he reiterated that a decision would not come until after the game.

“I just want to see how my draft stock is, I need to see what the plan is,” Thomas said then. “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.

“My teammates are on me good, and like I said, I wouldn’t mind coming back, running it back with them, back-to-back. “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.”

McDonald is now out of the equation. Earlier Thursday, he was announced as the new running backs coach USC. That is a sizable loss for Whittingham given McDonald had grown into arguably his best recruiter

“Him and Coach Mac had a great relationship the one year they were together, but Tavion knows it’s a business,” Powell said. “Him leaving was not a deal-breaker for Tavion.”

Thomas officially played in 13 games, but 1,081 of the 1,108 rushing and all 21 touchdowns came in just 10 of Utah’s 14 contests. He received just nine carries across three September games while working through early-season ball-security issues, and later sat out a Nov. 13 win at Arizona as an injury precaution.

The Utes, 10-4 overall and first-time champions of the Pac-12 in advancing to the program’s first Rose Bowl, have seven underclassmen leaving early for the NFL Draft. T.J., Pledger, Britain Covey, Nephi Sewell, Mika Tafua, Cole Fotheringham, Nick Ford and Devin Lloyd all announced their intentions to enter the NFL draft, but all of them played in the Rose Bowl, a 48-45 loss to Ohio State.

Thomas’s return will only buoy the notion that Utah, on paper, is the early favorite to win the Pac-12 again in 2022. Aside from Thomas, offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is expected to return at least quarterback Cam Rising, plus his two top tight ends in Brant Kuithe and Dalton Kincaid.

“A lot of people in Ohio stayed up late to watch Utah play this season,” Powell said. “That was not lost on him.”