When Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott said they really did not know what they had in running back Travis Etienne until fall camp started in August, he was telling the truth.
Elliott and head coach Dabo Swinney’s recruitment of Travis Etienne did not pick up full steam until Oregon running back Darrian Felix committed to the Ducks on January 8, less than a month before national signing day.
It was not a situation Elliott and Swinney expected to be in, but “due to some circumstances that situation changed for us,” Swinney said during Wednesday’s ACC Coaches Teleconference with the media.
Those circumstances came up when Cordarrian Richardson had to decommit from Clemson on December 23, 2016. He ultimately ended up signing with Central Florida in February.
“All of sudden, we had to go find a running back,” Swinney said.
Etienne was a guy the Tigers looked at early in the recruiting process before Richardson’s commitment, “but we had never really got to first base even because we offered two other guys right out of the gate and (Richardson) committed and we were done,” Swinney said.
Clemson was not on Etienne’s radar either at first. He initially committed to Texas A&M, but by the time the Richardson’s new broke, he was no longer a Texas A&M commit, though the Aggies were still pursuing him.
“He was on that initial list of guys we had evaluated and liked, so we just did not know much about him. So we just reached out,” Swinney said. “He had committed to Texas A&M early and then his situation changed. He was looking as well. So we reached out. He was interested and Tony did an awesome job connecting with him and his family. “
While Clemson was reaching out to Etienne, it also offered Felix prior to his commitment to Oregon. But once Felix committed to the Ducks, Etienne became the Tigers’ top target and guy they desperately needed to sign.
After winning the national championship on Jan. 9, Clemson lost running back Wayne Gallman to the NFL as he declared for the draft, while reserve running back Tyshon Dye transferred to East Carolina. That left the Tigers with just three scholarship players at the position.
Clemson normally likes to carry five running backs on its roster so it needed to sign at least one running back for the 2017 roster. To get a background on Etienne, Swinney called his good friend Burton Burns at Alabama, who had coached with Swinney at Clemson for a few years under then head coach Tommy Bowden.
“Burton Burns is a guy I have a lot of respect for… and I remember early, when we were kind of getting involved with Travis, he was one of those guys that we had talked to because he knew a lot about Travis because he had recruited him pretty hard and he really, really could not say enough good things about him as well.”
So Elliott went to the small town of Jennings, La., and met Etienne and his family. The next week, they came to Clemson and fell in love with it. Etienne ended up committing to Clemson six days before national signing day, while picking the Tigers over LSU, who was also recruiting him hard.
“It was just a good fit for both us,” Swinney said. “I’m just really thankful that it all worked out.”
Clemson fans are too. Etienne has become the talk of Tigertown since he got on campus and has quickly become one of the more popular players on the roster. He has led the Tigers in rushing in every game he has played and has popped off runs of 54, 81 and 50 yards already this season.
Etienne, though the fourth string running back for the first four games, leads the team with 292 yards on just 23 carries and has scored four touchdowns. He is averaging 97.3 yards per game and 12.7 per carry.
“He is just a humble kid and he comes from an awesome family,” Swinney said. “They are a very close family. He has been raised with the right values in his life. He is doing really well.”
Swinney announced earlier this week that Etienne will be the Tigers’ No. 2 running back, behind Tavien Feaster, when No. 2 Clemson visits 12th-ranked Virginia Tech this Saturday in Blacksburg, Va.
“He shows up and practices. He has a great personality,” the Clemson coach said. “He is really funny and we’re just off to a good start with him.”