Etienne shows what he can do in breakout performance
By Alex Maminakis
CLEMSON — Travis Etienne’s 81-yard touchdown against Louisville wasn’t by design.
Co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott revealed Monday that the play call for Etienne was actually an inside run.
Instead, the freshman bounced it outside and took off for the end zone.
On one hand, Elliott knows his young back is still learning. On the other hand, he knows Etienne’s abilities are special.
“I just hit it outside, and coach said, ‘If you do that, you better make sure you’re right,’ and I broke a tackle and it happened,” Etienne said.
The freshman running back from Jennings, La., has been praised by Clemson coaches and teammates for his raw power and running ability since fall camp began. Etienne was the Tigers’ last commitment in the recruiting class of 2017, signing to play at Clemson just six days after he committed on Jan. 26.
At 5-10, 200 lbs., Etienne ran track in high school and said his fastest 40-yard dash time was a blazing 4.37. Only five players at this year’s NFL Combine ran a faster time than that.
That speed was showcased on his touchdown run Saturday, as was his strength to break a tackle.
It was the longest touchdown run by any Tiger since C.J. Spiller’s 83-yarder against Auburn in the 2007 Chick-fil-A Bowl.
Etienne (pronounced like the three letters, E-T-N) leads Clemson in net rushing yards so far this season with 179 — on just 14 carries in two games.
The number of snaps he gets this year is still yet to be determined as the freshman gets acclimated to the college game, but he has certainly already shown his potential.
“The kid is very, very natural. His eyes talk extremely well to his feet,” Elliott said. “He can make full-speed cuts, he anticipates, and then once he gets into the open field, you saw it on national TV, that he’s very hard to catch.
“He’s a guy that, when he touches the ball, anything is liable to happen.”
As a young football player in Jennings, a town about 100 miles west of Baton Rouge, La., Etienne grew up watching the other Tigers who call Death Valley home — the Tigers of LSU. He admires former LSU star running back Leonard Fournette and current Tiger Derrius Guice, and he tries to model his running game after theirs. It shows.
But while he embraces the physicality of his position and his ability to break through tackles, Etienne would rather leave the defenders in the dust.
“I play running back. I know it’s a physical game, but I try to avoid all contact. I like my jersey to be clean after the game’s over,” he quipped.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney is impressed with what he’s seen from Etienne so far, on the practice field and on Saturdays, and said the freshman just needs to keep taking advantage of his opportunities when they arise. In a talented, deep backfield of C.J. Fuller, Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice, Etienne still has to work for his carries and grasp a better understanding of the offensive schemes, but Swinney knows Etienne has the talent to be successful.
“He runs with desperation every single play, and that’s what you love about him. He’s got that big-play capability,” Swinney said. “But you’ve got to be a down-in, down-out type of guy. So just continuing to learn the system and put his work in and compete, because he’s competing with some really good players at that position.”
It wasn’t an easy decision for Etienne to leave his home state and an offer from LSU to play college football at Clemson.
His parents have been to all three games so far this season but, like every college freshman, leaving his family behind was hard.
“Before I made my decision, my mom actually told me, ‘Don’t make a decision based on what you feel is right for us, because we’ll come see you wherever you play,’ and that really took a lot off my shoulders,” he said.
Now, three weeks into his freshman season, Etienne is already showing what he’s capable of with the football in his hands, and Clemson fans are taking notice.
It’s not in his home-state Death Valley, but Etienne is proud to be a Tiger.
“It was very close, closer than you could imagine,” he said about his decision to play at Clemson over LSU. “I’m glad I chose to come here.”
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