Utah coach Kyle Whittingham keeps quiet on Tavion Thomas’ status as Utes enter bye week

Thomas rushed only eight times vs. USC, and has been the subject of disciplinary issues this season.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) as the University of Utah host Southern Utah University at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, Sept. 10, 2022.

As the University of Utah moves through its open week, the status of Tavion Thomas appears murky.

Asked for an update on his All-Pac-12 running back Monday, Utes head coach Kyle Whittingham kept his answer coy.

“We’ll keep all that internal, regardless of what it is, unless there’s something very permanent in nature,” Whittingham said.

In the aftermath of an emotionally charged 43-42 win over previously-unbeaten USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium, ESPN 700 reported that Thomas had taken his pads off and left the game early. Video evidence later emerged, showing Thomas with his jersey on but shoulder pads off, running off the field by himself as the celebrations began on the field.

Whittingham on Saturday night was asked twice about Thomas’ status, once in his postgame press conference and again on the ESPN 700 postgame show. Both times, Whittingham pleaded ignorance.

Assuming Thomas is available when the 15th-ranked Utes play at Washington State on Oct. 27, what his role will be is difficult to ascertain.

Whittingham on Monday was asked what his running back hierarchy looks like at the moment. He used one name, and it wasn’t Thomas’.

“We’ll figure that out, we have time to go through that and figure out which direction we’re going to go,” Whittingham said. “Micah Bernard sure has been a huge value for us. He pass-protects, he catches the ball out of the backfield, he runs effectively, so we’ve got some good options, but that question will be answered when we get back out there towards the end of this week.”

Bernard has 11 carries in each of the last two games and is averaging 4.6 yards per carry through seven games.

Against USC, Thomas rushed just eight times for 28 yards on a night where Cam Rising attempted a career-high 43 passes. Utah, which has run the ball 54.7% of the time through seven games, ran the ball Saturday on just 41.6% of its 77 total plays.

Following the death of his aunt the week of the San Diego State game, and a trip home to Dayton, Ohio, in the days that followed, Thomas did not play in the first half of a 34-13 win over Arizona State. He nevertheless finished with team-highs of 11 carries for 60 yards anyway. Whittingham did not specifically say that Thomas was suspended for the first half of the game, but the coach certainly indicated it.

Whittingham on multiple occasions has said Thomas needs to show “consistency” and “accountability” on and off the field, without being more specific.

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, but then saw an increased role at UCLA. He ran for 91 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, but only four of those carries came after halftime.

Behind that effort, Whittingham indicated on Oct. 10 that he envisioned Thomas’ role continuing to increase, but that did not come to fruition against USC.

For the season, Thomas leads Utah in carries (93) and rushing yards (414), while his five rushing touchdowns are second on the team to Rising’s six.