Was Utah punishing Tavion Thomas? Or trying to save him?

The TribUte newsletter: Thomas returned to full action vs, Stanford, and is expected to be fully available at Oregon on Saturday night in Eugene.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) celebrates his touchdown, in PAC-12 football action between the Utah Utes and the Stanford Cardinal at Rice-Eccles Stadium, on Saturday, Nov. 12, 2022.

Utah running back Tavion Thomas’ status has been anything but certain over the last six weeks.

Each time the matter was broached by reporters, head coach Kyle Whittingham went out of his way to say that whatever Thomas was going through, and whatever the Utes were doing about it, would remain internal.

Heading into the Utes’ most important game of the season, the details of Thomas’ turbulent season remain mostly unclear. But his status with the team — and how he got back there — has come into focus.

Thomas returned to full action on Saturday night, offering the best version of his football self via 22 carries for 180 yards and two touchdown runs. Thomas had not spoken to the media on a Monday afternoon, which is when offensive players are made available during the week, but on the heels of Saturday, he did speak on Monday in front of a larger-than-normal press contingent.

Whittingham may (rightfully) want to keep the sensitive nature of this situation internal, but Thomas, who I find pleasant and thoughtful with reporters, pulled back the curtain ever so slightly.

“I just can’t put it on one person, it’s been a few people,” Thomas said when asked if there was anyone in the program he had been able to lean on and talk to. “I’ve been talking to Jonathan, our sports psychologist. I’ve been talking to him and really just been trying to do stuff on my own to get better. I’ll be thinking about just wanting to get my thoughts out, and that’s been helping me get more comfortable with my feelings, expressing myself.”

Jonathan is Dr. Jonathan Ravarino, the athletic department’s director of psychology and wellness. Thomas’ revelation that he has been working with Ravarino, which has yielded a better ability to harness his emotions and express himself, leads to another revelation as Thomas returned to form against Stanford.

Yes, some of what’s been going on has been Whittingham punishing Thomas, suspending him for the first half at Arizona State and not taking him to Washington State at all, but more so than punishing him, having Thomas talk to mental health professionals and forcing him to work on himself means that Utah is trying to save him.

This is, on some level, about winning football games, but it’s more about helping Thomas with his mental health in the wake of his aunt’s death in September. He has mentioned multiple times in the last six weeks that he took a trip back to his hometown of Dayton, Ohio after his aunt’s death. He hadn’t been back in two years, and after taking a hard look around, he’d rather not be back in a full-time capacity.

“The trip back to Dayton was just another visual, like you don’t want to go back to this,” Thomas said. “Handle your business, get right, there’s people counting on you. It made me realize, it’s really bigger than me. I just had to take little setbacks and realize what was in front of me. That helped me get right.

“There are days you don’t want to be there, but once you’re not there, you realize how much you miss everything. How much you miss being around these guys, the meetings, just the game. That hit me hard, not being around it.”

Thomas looked fully engaged against Stanford, then sounded fully engaged on Monday. That version of Thomas, his best self, is critically necessary if he and these Utes want to make a return trip to the Pac-12 championship game and, if that goes well, the Rose Bowl.

Other things on my mind

• With Whittingham and Cam Rising addressing the latter’s future in their respective postgame comments after Stanford, I asked Whittingham on Monday if he believed Rising’s successor was already in the room, or if he believed hitting the NCAA Transfer Portal would be necessary.

Whittingham’s answer was PC, offering that they like Bryson Barnes, we’ve now seen a dose of Nate Johnson, and fellow-freshman Brandon Rose was doing a nice job of running the scout team. Additionally, Whittingham noted that the portal doesn’t really get churning until December, when seasons end or are in the middle of bowl prep. Whittingham did not mention Ja’Quinden Jackson, whose future Whittingham said would be reevaluated in the offseason after he switched from quarterback to running back in September.

I still believe Utah needs to hit the portal in an effort to at least make the current guys in the room earn it, but Johnson’s emergence as a situational option this month could certainly lead one to believe that, yes, maybe the next guy is already present.

• The Runnin’ Utes getting a split of Georgia Tech, and then either Marquette or Mississippi State next week at the Fort Myers Tip-Off has felt for months like it would be a win for Craig Smith. Now that we’re playing games and we’ve seen who has what over the last 10 days, I started thinking Utah might actually be able to get both of those games, but then Sam Houston walked into the Huntsman Center on Thursday night and out-toughed Smith’s team. What the response is Monday vs. the Yellow Jackets will be telling.

• I mentioned this in passing a couple of newsletters ago, but it’s worth repeating. If Utah wins the Pac-12 and goes back to the Rose Bowl, it marks Kyle Whittingham’s greatest coaching job. Last year is high on the list, but this year would supplant that given all the injuries to key guys and the personal stuff that has marred Thomas’ season.