Monday Morning Quarterback
Travis Etienne is starting to recognize he isn’t just any freshman on the Clemson football team, though his personality reflects that he is one.
Since the moment he broke off a 54-yard run in fourth-ranked Clemson’s first game of the season, Etienne has been a fan favorite. His celebratory status has increased with each long touchdown run – four already of 50 or more yards this season.
“It has definitely changed since the first game,” Etienne said smiling following the Tigers’ Atlantic Division clinching-win over Florida State this past Saturday. “Now, I’ll be walking on campus and people will be telling me ‘good job’ and stuff like that.”
After a game, Etienne gets mobbed coming out of the locker room by adoring Clemson fans.
“It is a crazy circus around me and it is kind of hard to get out,” he said with a big grin. “I can’t sign every autograph, but I try to get as many as I can. It has really changed since the first game.”
Things have gotten so crazy, the freshman from Jennings, La., could not even comment on what the craziest thing that has happened to him since he got on campus.
But the running backs popularity isn’t the only thing that has changed since the start of the season. He has also grown as a football player in his short time with the Tigers.
In Clemson’s win over Florida State, it was Etienne—who did not get on campus until the summer—that was on the field and carrying the rock in the most critical part of the game.
“It was more of the situation that he had the hot hand at the end of the game and he has proven that he can function in that environment,” co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott said. “Right now, he is probably the one that has the greatest opportunity for the big and explosive play.
“When you are in a tough game, you are looking for every opportunity to break a game open with a big play. He is that kind of guy.”
And Etienne did not disappoint his coach. With Clemson clinging to a three-point lead following Van Smith’s interception and 38-yard return, Etienne took a hand-off on a second-and-seven play from the FSU 30, broke one arm-tackle and then hit the open field for a 25-yard run to the five. Two plays later, he barreled into the end zone from a yard out for the game-clinching score with 3:05 left to play.
“I’m just out there trying to help my team and trying to get the win,” Etienne said humbly. “For me to be out there in those situations … the offensive line was opening up the holes for me to run through, everybody was doing their part.”
Etienne, who also had a 28-yard touchdown run earlier in the game, proved how much he has grown with two plays he made. The first one came on an earlier possession in the fourth quarter. His heads-up-play to pick up a blitz coming off the edge prevented Kelly Bryant from being sacked and resulted in a 16-yard run for the Clemson quarterback.
It was a similar play to the one he missed in the Tigers’ loss last month at Syracuse that resulted in a 10-yard sack and led to a missed field goal.
“That is just film study and just playing fast,” Etienne said. “At Syracuse, I saw it, but I just could not get there because I was too focused on the other blitz and I saw him pop out. This time I saw him pop out. When I was scanning, I could hear Coach Elliott in my mind. It really helped me get there. Just Coach showing us what to do and really helping us in the film room, it helps us.”
The next sign of Etienne’s growth came on his 25-yard run in the fourth quarter when instead of going out of bounds he jumped back inside to keep the clock moving.
“That is something Coach really works with us on, just being aware of the situation of the game,” the freshman said. “It is a hard fought close game so going out of bounds could potentially give them time so I just stayed in bounds and let the clock run out. It just really helped us.”
Elliott says all the things we are now seeing with Etienne, running between the tackles, carrying defenders to the goal line, spinning away from would-be-tackles and picking up blitzes is what they expected from him. He even had a 16-yard catch-and-run on a screen play, which he nicely set up with his blockers by being patient and letting them get out in front of him.
In other words, Etienne is starting to look like a veteran running back, not a true freshman.
“He has been that way since he stepped on campus,” Elliott said. “He has shown us how dynamic and explosive he is. What you are learning now is just how tough he is. In the past, those big plays were created where he was not touched. Now you are starting to see him break tackles, run between the tackles, down on the goal line he is spinning in traffic and is holding on to the ball.
“Every rep that he gets, he just continues to gain the trust of everybody in the building. We know that on any given play he and Tavien (Feaster), or any of them, is capable of a big play. But, he is starting to show he can get those tough physical dirty yards and then over time that is going to break a defense down and he is going to get those explosive plays.”
The Clemson coaches trusted Etienne enough to give him the football 14 times for 97 yards this past Saturday, with 10 of those carries coming in the fourth quarter. He now leads the Tigers with 617 yards and 7.7 yards per carry. He is also averaging a team best 77.1 yards per game and his nine touchdowns rank second to Bryant’s 10.
“That is what I think makes Travis such a special young man. He takes pride in his performance,” Elliott said. “He takes pride in trying to do the little things. He is like a sponge. He is trying to eat up everything I say in the meetings.
“Again, it is hard for him because he is a freshman and it is moving fast. Every week is a different game plan and a different set of blitzes, which is really tough for a freshman, but every rep he gets, he gets better. He is a physical kid that likes to mix it up.”