Utah football’s Tavion Thomas ends college career, turns focus to NFL draft, East-West Shrine Bowl

In a tweet Friday afternoon, the running back cited a toe injury suffered at Oregon as the reason for ending his season

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes running back Tavion Thomas (9) as the University of Utah hosts USC, NCAA football in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2022.

Tavion Thomas has played his last game at the University of Utah.

Citing a toe injury suffered in the Utes’ 20-17 loss at the University of Oregon, the fifth-year junior running back announced on Twitter Friday afternoon that he will end his college career early, instead opting to focus on the East-West Shrine Bowl on Feb. 2 and the NFL draft in April.

The East-West Shrine Bowl, an all-star game for seniors, announced on Wednesday that Thomas had accepted an invitation. Thomas is a draft-eligible fifth-year junior, who Utah head coach Kyle Whittingham had already said earlier this month would not be returning in 2023.

Thomas will not play in Saturday’s regular-season finale at Colorado (2 p.m., Pac-12 Networks), nor will he play in a bowl game or the Pac-12 championship game, should the Utes get there.

“Unfortunately, I injured my toe in our previous game,” Thomas said in the tweet. “Due to this, I am declaring for the NFL Draft and spending my time rehabbing and training for this next step in my football journey.

“I look forward to getting back and dominating in the Shrine Game.”

A transfer from Independence Community College in Kansas by way of the University of Cincinnati, Thomas was a revelation last fall after early ball-security issues. He finished 2021 with 1,108 rushing yards and a school single-season record 21 rushing touchdowns as Utah won the Pac-12 and advanced to the Rose Bowl for the first time.

Just days after the Rose Bowl, Thomas announced his intention to return to Utah in 2022 for what would presumably be his final season. This season, complete with so much promise for Thomas, was messy, both in terms of football and in his personal life.

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 later noted, 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 Whittingham’s support, was able to get back to Dayton for a couple of days to be with his family.

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 used the words “consistency” and “accountability” while being coy about the situation. Thomas had just six carries for 13 yards vs. Oregon State on Oct 1. on a day when Whittingham’s top four running backs combined for just 55 yards on 22 carries.

In the aftermath of an emotionally charged 43-42 win over previously unbeaten USC at Rice-Eccles Stadium on Oct. 15, 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 that night was asked twice about Thomas’ status, once in his postgame news conference and again on the ESPN 700 postgame show. Both times, Whittingham pleaded ignorance.

Thomas did not travel to Washington State on Oct. 27, but 22 carries for 180 yards and two touchdowns against Stanford on Nov. 12 appeared to signify that things had finally, fully turned a corner. Against Oregon, in what turned out to be his final game, Thomas ran for just 55 yards on 19 carries.

“The trip back to Dayton was just another visual, like you don’t want to go back to this,” Thomas said two days after the Stanford game. “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.”

For the season, Thomas leads Utah in carries (142), yards (687) and rushing touchdowns (7). His 28 career rushing touchdowns put him third all-time at Utah behind Zack Moss’ 38 from 2016-19 and Del Rodgers’ 31 from 1978-81.