The first-team All-Pac 12 pick is the team’s highest-graded player via Pro Football Focus and the focal point of a Utah offense that has the Utes in the Rose Bowl for the first time.
He has also become an inspirational story after surviving being being homeless last summer to become one of the best running backs in the country.
“It’s just a blessing,” he said. “I was thinking about that the other day. I was talking to my mom and was like, ‘Man, I’m really here. Like, Mom, it seems like I was just calling you stressin’, you know?’ Now I’m here. That’s why I just want to keep my foot on the gas and stays focused and finish the journey.”
And Thomas confirmed he has a little extra motivation for Saturday’s game as an Ohio native.
“I used to love watching Ohio State,” he said. “You know, a kid from Ohio, how the Ohio State program was and stuff like that.”
Specifically, he remembered Braxton Miller, the quarterback from Wayne High School, and Ezekiel Elliott, a power running back in the same mold as Thomas.
For a time in the fall of 2018, he had designs on following in Elliott’s footsteps, but it did not work out.
Ohio State was among numerous power programs to offer him a scholarship, but rather than sign him in December his senior season, the coaching staff wanted him to spend time at a junior college first.
“I was like, ‘Nah,’” Thomas said with a laugh. “I wasn’t really feeling that.”
After signing with Cincinnati, he got a chance to face the Buckeyes in Ohio Stadium in 2019.
He ran for 58 yards, but he fumbled on the last of his 11 carries. After leaving UC, he ended up spending time in JUCO anyway. After finding his way to Utah, he gets another shot at the Buckeyes.
“I still got that bad taste in my mouth,” he said. “We lost 42-0, so just to play them boys again (should be) a good experience.”
Fumbling was still an issue for Thomas early this season and nearly cost him the chance to become the Utes’ lead back, but offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig created him with working to fix the problem.
“I think a big red light went on, and Tavion said, ‘I’m going to get this fixed or else I’m not going to play,’” Ludwig said.
“That ball came out a couple times the first couple games of the year, and he came off the field. He wants to play. He wants to be an impact player in this program. He identified the issue, and he got the issue corrected. It’s a daily process in terms of focusing on ball security, and I’m very pleased with his development and where he is right now.”
After the Rose Bowl, Thomas will have a decision to make.
He could enter the NFL Draft or return to Utah for one more season.
“I just want to see how my draft stock is,” he said. “I just want to see what’s going to be the plans, so if I’ve got to come back another year, I wouldn’t mind to. I would love to come back here. So I’m just going to wait until after the game, after everything’s done for the season.”
He said former Dunbar coach Darren Powell is among those from back home he remains in contact with, and he is proud to carry 937 pride wherever he goes.
“I love my city a lot, man,” Thomas said. “I can’t wait to be able to one day give back to my community. That’s something I really want to do.”