How Utes running back Tavion Thomas can get back in Kyle Whittingham’s good graces

Thomas did not play in the first half of Utah’s win over Arizona State.

(Rick Bowmer | AP) Utah running back Tavion Thomas smiles on the sideline during the second half of the team's NCAA college football game against San Diego State on Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022, in Salt Lake City.

The first hint came as the No. 12 Utah Utes took the field before routing Arizona State on Saturday.

Where was lead running back Tavion Thomas? Was he injured? Was he benched?

It turned out that he was fully healthy and only half-benched. Coach Kyle Whittingham opted not to start him from the opening kickoff, instead making Thomas wait until the second half before taking the field.

Thomas still led the team in rushing with 60 yards on 11 carries.

After the game, Whittingham said sitting Thomas for the first half was due to something “internal.” On Monday, he elaborated on the situation ever so slightly.

“Consistency and accountability on and off the field,” Whittingham said when asked what it would take for Thomas to get back to being a featured running back.

That answer (predictably) doesn’t say much, but it does hint that there are issues outside of football that have plagued Thomas this season.

For his part, Thomas has dealt with some personal matters, too. The running back decided to play the game against San Diego State despite grieving the recent death of his aunt.

When running backs coach Quinton Ganther was asked later Monday how he can continue to instill confidence in Thomas during this current rough stretch, he focused on the family tragedy.

“We just want to send our prayers out for Tavion and his family right now because he’s lost a close family member,” Ganther said. “So we just want to keep him uplifted in prayer.”

The depth chart released Monday still has Thomas as the lead running back, and Whittingham said the pecking order right now is Thomas, Jaylon Glover, Ja’Quinden Jackson and Micah Bernard.

But Thomas did fumble the ball away in each of the first two games this season, and Whittingham is publicly addressing consistency and accountability issues after not starting him Saturday. Thomas clearly has some work to do to reverse his trajectory at the moment.

“I would like to see Tavion be Tavion,” Ganther said. “That’s what I would like to see.”

A somber anniversary

Monday marked exactly one year since Utah defensive back Aaron Lowe was shot and killed at a party. Whittingham made a brief statement to commemorate what a dark day in Utah football history.

“I just want to let Aaron’s family know how much they’re in our thoughts and prayers, and we miss him,” Whittingham said. “Just want to make sure we acknowledge that and always remember Aaron and Ty [Jordan].”

Whittingham added that Lowe’s mother and the aunt of Jordan, who died from an accidental self-inflicted gunshot wound late in 2020, will attend an upcoming game and be honored.

“They’re in our thoughts daily,” Whittingham said.

The team will wear special hand-painted helmets honoring Lowe and Jordan on Oct. 15, when the team plays USC at home.

Whittingham ‘very concerned’ about kick returns

Whittingham said Utah’s special teams play on Saturday was just “so-so.” He could have been talking, at least in part, to defending the kick return.

The Utes gave up 155 yards to kick returners alone against Arizona State. Whittingham was clearly not happy with that and highlighted it as a point of emphasis moving forward.

“Very concerned because it showed up last year and was it was not a problem until this past week,” Whittingham said. “We’ve got to do a better job of coaching. ... We’ve got to do a better job of rotating, staying in our lanes. We missed some tackles. So it is a big concern and we have to get that corrected.”