Utah Utes mailbag: Should Utah fans worry whether or not Tavion Thomas plays?

Plus: Rising’s potential return in 2023, defensive adjustments, Pullman on a Thursday night, and more

(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.

Utah running back Tavion Thomas’ season has been a wild ride so far. A season removed from being an All-Pac-12 standout, Thomas has been at various times featured, suspended, in mourning and now in question.

After last weekend, when ESPN 700 radio reported that Thomas removed his pads and left the USC game early, Utes coach Kyle Whittingham has said he’s keeping quiet on Thomas.

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

I don’t remember any topic getting more traction for a Utes mailbag than the status of Tavion Thomas. We’re going to start this mailbag right there.

Do you have a question for Utes beat reporter Josh Newman? Send it to him via a tweet, direct message him on Twitter, email him at jnewman@sltrib.com, or leave it in the comments section at the end of this article and he will answer them in his weekly mailbag.

Q: “Tell me why we don’t need to worry about Tavion Thomas and why Utah pizza is the worst. (New York City dollar slice is the best)” - @luke_rydalch

A: A lot happening here. Let’s get into the real question first.

Utah pizza is not the worst, far from it. Utah has perfectly fine pizza options. They are not all over the place by any means, but they are out there. I found them. Trust me, I’ve tried worse.

As for Thomas, Utah’s offense is better, more dynamic, more capable when Thomas has it going. That is not in dispute, and I present most of last season as evidence. When Thomas is going well, it takes pressure off Cam Rising, it takes pressure off receivers; everything hums along nicely when Thomas is barreling forward for 5-6 yards per rush.

That said, consider what Thomas has done in the last four games. He went 11 carries for 60 yards at Arizona State, all in the second half of a game that was over at halftime. Six carries for 13 yards vs. Oregon State, where Utah scored 42 points and no running back had a productive day. Eighteen carries for 91 yards at UCLA, but just four second-half carries as Utah was forced to throw more while trailing. Eight carries for 28 yards vs. USC as Rising attempted 43 passes and threw for 415 yards.

Are you telling me that, after looking at the last four games, in which Utah is 3-1, it can’t survive without Thomas producing at that clip? Really? It’s not like he’s averaging 90-100 yards per game and all of a sudden that disappears.

Again, not ideal, but you can certainly overcome that and, frankly, Utah already has. Rising is playing at a high level, things have steadied significantly since the loss of Brant Kuithe, the offense as a whole is the least of whatever problems the Utes are facing right now.

That said, how much longer can Utah’s offense operate without a significant rushing attack? Long-term, they need some semblance of a run game. Even if it’s Thomas, Micah Bernard, and Rising combining for 25-30 carries and, I’m making this up, 130 yards per game. Someone has to fill the void. You have to get something from that phase of the game, even if it’s not what you envisioned back in August.

Q: “Does Rising come back for a senior season? To clarify, this is not a joke question.” - @MyoungSLC

A: We touched on this in the last mailbag.

Rising is an older guy, there’s an injury history, the offense has been run–first, Rising’s 43 pass attempts against USC notwithstanding. Does he want to spend a sixth year in school? How much better can his draft stock get?

Rising’s draft stock, and how much better it can get. Let’s stick with that for the purposes of this question.

The potential quarterback class for this next NFL draft is shaping up to be quite deep, and while Rising is putting together another excellent season, it doesn’t feel at all like he is a slam-dunk draft selection.

Let’s name some draft-eligible quarterbacks: Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Will Levis, K.J. Jefferson, Tyler Van Dyke, Anthony Richardson, Devin Leary, Grayson McCall, Hendon Hooker, Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

Maybe all of those guys don’t enter this next draft, but that’s 10, and off the top of my head, I can come up with seven or eight more, including BYU’s Jaren Hall, that might get real, meaningful consideration ahead of Rising in this upcoming cycle.

This is an advantageous problem for Rising and his family to have. You want to take a crack at the NFL, but if you think the draft class is too loaded, or you just don’t think you’re ready, you can return to Utah for one more run. Whittingham is likely to do a backflip in his office if that scenario played out.

To this, I think of Kenny Pickett, who used his fifth year of eligibility at Pitt thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. He parlayed that into 4,500 yards of total offense, an ACC championship, finishing third in Heisman Trophy voting, and the No. 20 overall selection in the 2022 NL draft.

I don’t know if Rising has any real interest in returning next fall, but there is recent proof that such a move can pan out nicely.

Q: What adjustments can Utah’s defense make between now and Washington State to help put them in Pac-12 title contention?” - @RichieOstler

A: I could take all of the pertinent raw statistics (elite rush defense, so-so pass defense, good overall defense) and manipulate them however I want to answer this question. Instead, here are a few observations.

• Too many chunk plays at UCLA, way too many vs. USC. Both of those opposing QBs are special, but my point stands. They’re momentum-shifters, they’re game-changers,

• Not enough of a pass rush. Getting home with a four-man front has to be a priority moving forward.

• The secondary has played well, and I’m not just talking about Clark Phillips III.

After UCLA, I contended that, after six games, maybe this defense just is what it is. The first half vs. USC bore that out, but the second half was markedly better as the Utes gave up just 192 yards of total offense. I still lean towards this defense being what it is until there is further evidence to the contrary, but ...

Are there issues? Yes, but here’s the good news. If you can survive Cam Ward and Washington State on a Thursday night in Pullman, there is, at least on paper, a bit of a reprieve coming with Arizona and Stanford at home to open November.

Speaking of Pullman ...

Q: “Thursday night at Washington State. What are your feelings on this game?” - @BurninghamBrett

A: I thought Washington State would be better, let me start there. The win over Wisconsin doesn’t look great anymore, the loss to Oregon was bad, and the Cougars didn’t have the horses to hang with USC.

All of that said, this is still a tough spot. A Thursday night, off a bye, in Pullman, which tends to get weird anyway, and who knows what the weather is going to be there in late October. This is precisely the #Pac12AfterDark-type of game that can torpedo a season, exactly the spot you don’t want to be in if you’re a conference championship contender.

Utah is better on paper, much better in fact. Dealing with Cam Ward is priority A, B, C, because if you can contain the dynamic QB, the rest of the personnel cannot match what the Utes have.

Brass tacks: I think Washington State will be up for that game, and I think the atmosphere/weather will play a role. I like Utah, but not easily.

Q: “Is this type of Utah football, where Rising has to throw 35-40 times, sustainable to take them to the Pac-12 championship game given how poor the defense is playing?” - @SigmaUte

A: Utah’s offense is at its best when it is establishing the run and taking the pressure off Rising, allowing him to only have to throw something like 30 times per game, if that many. Preferably a touch less if things are going well up front and you can keep hammering the ball.

The problem right now is Utah’s rushing offense has not played up to its usual standards recently. Rising has taken on more of that responsibility, which on the surface is fine. Whittingham said after Oregon State that they’re comfortable with Rising running the ball, whether it be on scrambles or by design, between 8-12 times per game. However ...

If there continues to be a situation where Rising is going to throw the ball 43 times AND run the ball 11 times in a game, well, I think that is a bad idea. There wasn’t much of a choice Saturday night against USC because A) The Trojans had no answer and B) The run game is not in a good place. Furthermore, the offensive line was terrific against USC, keeping Rising upright against a Trojans defense that came in averaging four sacks per game.

One game is one game, Utah took full advantage of what USC gave it, but you’re looking at five more regular-season games before potentially the Pac-12 championship game. Asking Rising to do what he did on Saturday for five more weeks feels untenable if you think you can get back to the Rose Bowl.

As Whittingham alluded to after USC, this is a good time for a bye. One, they’re 11 weeks in without a break if you include camp. Two, there are a lot of things to figure out, so a break now allows everyone to take a breath and get those things in order.

Q: “Let’s address the importance of Enis’ play Saturday night. Dude had some amazing blocks last night. Been an unselfish player his entire time at Utah.” - @RedSoxRooskie

A: Not a question, but a good observation.

Solomon Enis is a solid veteran pass-catching option, but his greatest value might be as a blocker. He is good downfield, on the perimeter, and in short-yardage. The play that comes to mind is the halfback pitch to Micah Bernard late in the third quarter at Florida. Enis buried his guy around the 5, then drove him to the goal line after he got up as Bernard walked into the end zone.

“They were very physical, I was pleased with how they looked in the run game,” wide receiver coach Chad Bumphis said after the Florida game. “Obviously, you want them to do more in the throw game, but no drops and they competed all night. I challenged them to be physical and they did, specifically Solomon Enis, I saw a side of him I hadn’t seen yet. He played ticked off and it was good to see.”

Receivers want to catch the ball as much as possible, but Enis embraces his role as a blocker, which is beneficial because he has excelled at it this fall.