After a difficult month, is Utah running back Tavion Thomas beginning to turn the corner?

Thomas’ aunt died last month, and he was suspended for the first half of a win at Arizona State — but things are starting to turn around for him now.

(Ashley Landis | AP) Utah running back Tavion Thomas (9) celebrates after scoring a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game against UCLA in Pasadena, Calif., Saturday, Oct. 8, 2022.

When Tavion Thomas announced his intention on Jan. 6 to return to the University of Utah for his senior season, it meant running back would not be among the issues facing the Utes in 2022.

Or, so they thought.

The fifth-year junior has had a difficult last four weeks. His aunt died days before the Utes hosted San Diego State on Sept. 17. Thomas took that especially hard given his aunt raised him, his two siblings and, as Thomas said Monday afternoon, a total of 13 children in his native Dayton, Ohio.

As the following week unfolded and Utah began preparing to face Arizona State in Tempe on Sept. 24, Thomas, with Kyle Whittingham’s support, was able to get back to Dayton for a couple of days to be with his family.

“I hadn’t seen family in almost two years,” said Thomas, who had not spoken to reporters in several weeks before Monday. “It felt good to go home. Not in that circumstance, but it was good to see family, be around them, see your people. You still have a job to do, though. You have to come to work and keep going.

“I think sometimes you need to go back to your environment, just to see it, remind yourself this is not where you want to be. Now, you know your mission. You don’t want to end up back home doing the things you do at home. You want to stay locked in, stay focused, stay out here, remember your why. I went home, saw my family, and I felt the love again. They told me they’ve been watching me, so I think I just needed that family love. It got me back on the right track.”

What exactly transpired between his aunt’s death, the quick trip to Dayton, and the Arizona State game remains unclear.

He did not play in the first half of a 34-13 win over Sun Devils, but finished with team-highs of 11 carries for 60 yards anyway. Whittingham did not spell out that Thomas was suspended for the first half, but he certainly indicated it.

“Yeah, he was available physically, but we were planning to play him in the second half this game,” Whittingham said that night. “Sometimes, things happen and you have to make certain moves. That was an internal thing, but Tavion’s healthy and fine.”

Whittingham a number of times has used the words “consistency” and “accountability” while being expectedly coy about the situation. Thomas had just six carries for 13 yards vs. Oregon State on a day when Whittingham’s top-four running backs combined for just 55 yards on 22 carries.

For the first time since rushing for 112 yards and a touchdown on 23 carries in the Sept. 3 opener at Florida, on Saturday at UCLA, Thomas showed flashes of the 1,100-yard force of nature from a year ago.

He ran for 91 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, but only four of those carries came after halftime.

“We were playing catch up a little bit, not big-time catch up, but he was a little bit tired,” Whittingham said. “He’s still not in great shape. He did carry the ball 18 times, that’s still a pretty big workload for a game. He did play his best game of the year, his most productive game of the year. Maybe in hindsight, we should’ve given him some more carries in the second half, but it wasn’t by design to go away from him in the second half.”

Thomas’ standing in Whittingham’s eyes has gotten better since this all started, and if there are no setbacks, Whittingham envisions Thomas continuing to get the bulk of the carries for a rushing offense that enters the weekend No. 3 in the Pac-12 and 27th nationally at 201.5 yards per game.

For what it’s worth, Whittingham has publicly been bullish on Thomas going back to the start of last season.

A late-spring 2021 recruiting win out of Independence Community College in Kansas, Thomas showed up last summer overweight, then had major ball-security issues to start the season. Those were bad enough, and Utah’s stable of running backs was deep enough, that Thomas had his role shrunk to almost nothing for a three-game stretch from Sept. 11-25.

All the while, Whittingham fielded questions about Thomas’ status, remaining staunch in his belief that Thomas had the talent, had the ability, he just had to get the ball-security worked out.

It all paid off because when the running back merry-go-round came back to him, Thomas was a revelation. Over the final seven regular-season games, Thomas had 16 of his program single-season record 21 rushing touchdowns, including back-to-back four-touchdown games in blowouts of UCLA and Stanford.

The circumstances this time around are different, but the point is the same. Whittingham isn’t ready to give up on Thomas just yet.

“I’m hanging in there, trying to stay focused, look at the bigger picture. I know she wouldn’t want me to give up.”

“It’s time to get going, man,” Thomas said. “I feel like my brothers need me, they count on me, and I count on them, too. I just want to do whatever I can do to help the team win. I hate losing. It’s hurting me right now, so I need to up my game and play better. That’s all I’m looking to do.”

If Thomas’ role continues to increase, then stays at a significant level, the complexion of the running backs room is bound to change.

Converted quarterback Ja’Quinden Jackson had nine carries for 31 yards and a touchdown at Arizona State. He had four carries vs. Oregon State, and none at UCLA. Promising true freshman Jaylon Glover started and had 13 carries at Arizona State. He had six vs. Oregon State, and was a DNP at UCLA.

“We have a lot of confidence in him, he’s making progress each week,” Whittingham said of Jackson. “This is only his third week at running back this year. With Tavion starting to emerge, there’s only so many reps and so many touches, but he still is right in the mix there. He’s in the top four. You typically use four backs during the season, and as things progress, hopefully he’ll be able to be more of a factor for us.”

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