Good things tend to happen when Travis Etienne touches the football. Even when the freshman running back makes mistakes, he can still make plays.
In the second quarter of Clemson’s eventual 28-14 win over Wake Forest on Saturday, for example, Etienne misinterpreted a play-call on fourth-and-1. The play was a designed bootleg for Kelly Bryant, meaning Etienne should have done his part to fake the handoff.
Instead, he took the handoff, and managed to pick up the first down.
“That was just an error by me. … I thought I was supposed to get it, and I kind of had grabbed it. Good thing it worked out,” Etienne said on Monday.
“We all know what would have happened if I hadn’t gotten the first down. Just glad I don’t have to live with that,” he added with a smile.
That wasn’t the first time that Etienne got away with an error in a game. Earlier this season at Louisville, he hit the wrong hole on a running play, but broke off an 81-yard touchdown run anyway.
“I think everybody sees just how electric he is, but what people don’t realize is the play that he broke for a touchdown, he was supposed to hit in the A-gap,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott revealed the following week. “He’s fast enough to bounce it to the outside, and then he broke a tackle. … He’s one of the few that has the ability to do that, but also he’s learning.”
Growing pains are to be expected with any freshman, and with someone as talented and explosive as Etienne, it’s much easier to take the bad with the good.
There has been a lot more good than bad with Etienne through the first six games of his career. The Jennings, La., native currently ranks 10th in the ACC in rushing yards (378), tied for fifth in rushing touchdowns (five) and second in yards per attempt (8.2).
As productive and exciting as Etienne has been, though, he is still learning — and making strides — on the fly.
“I’m not where I need to be, but I’m definitely better than last week, just knowing more, just knowing the schemes, knowing what I’m supposed to do and why I’m supposed to do it,” Etienne said. “I’m definitely getting much better at that, and it’s an ongoing process.”
Clemson’s game at Virginia Tech two weeks ago, which the Tigers won 31-17, presented the perfect teaching opportunity for Elliott with Etienne.
Etienne finished the game with just 19 rushing yards on eight carries, an average of 2.4 yards per tote. Prior to that, he had rushed for at least 81 yards and scored at least one touchdown in each of the three games he appeared in.
Elliott said last week that Etienne’s struggles against the Hokies helped him reinforce some things he had been harping on, especially as it pertains to executing assignments and doing what is asked within the offense.
“I think now he’ll understand why I’m hard on him and why I’m trying to get him to understand how we do things and how things are blocked,” Elliott said. “Because he’s unbelievably quick, unbelievably fast, very, very talented, but at the same time too at this level you have to be able to play within the system. … Just understanding that there’s consequences for your actions, and you have to be disciplined. And as we get into the meat of our schedule and down towards the end of the year, every area is magnified, and you have to play within the system.”
Etienne agreed that the game against Virginia Tech helped him sort some issues out.
“I definitely feel the Virginia Tech game really helped me, just being able to play within the scheme,” he said. “Because there was a couple of times when I tried to go outside when the hole was right there, from the previous weeks. It really made me go watch film and made me play within the scheme, so that really was a positive for me.”
Not only is Etienne improving as a runner in that regard, but he’s getting better without the ball in his hands, as well.
Protecting the passer is an essential part of playing running back in Clemson’s offense, and Etienne feels he has come a long way as a blocker.
“I’ve progressed a lot, actually,” Etienne said of his pass blocking, “just knowing the schemes, knowing what gaps I’m supposed to protect, and my technique is getting much better.”
Etienne is still raw, a work in progress. But is upside is undeniable, and that’s what makes Clemson’s coaching staff so excited about his future.
“He’s got a ways to go,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “He’s got special talent, but he’s still a young player that’s learning every day. Every single day, he’s learning. But that’s what I love about him.”