NEW ORLEANS — The last time Travis Etienne played in New Orleans, he was a low-profile prospect looking for an opportunity to play big-time college football.
Now, the freshman running back is preparing to play in New Orleans again — this time in the College Football Playoff, as the leading rusher for the top-ranked Clemson Tigers.
“It’s just going to be a surreal experience, and it really hasn’t dawned on me yet how big of a deal it is,” Etienne said of the chance to play in the Sugar Bowl semifinal against No. 4 Alabama. “But I think that afterwards I’ll realize how big it was and just the impact that I had or can have on the game. With everyone watching me and me being from here just puts a cherry on top of it all.”
On April 10, 2016, Etienne competed at Nike’s The Opening Regional combine in New Orleans, about three hours from his hometown of Jennings, La.
A rising senior in high school, Etienne was still a relatively unknown recruit at that point. He held several Division I scholarship offers, but wanted to boost his stock at the combine and turn himself into a national recruit.
“I went in there with the intent of just showing people who I was,” Etienne said. “Before that I had never been to a camp of that sort. I just wanted to go out there and show my abilities and put my name out there, that way I could play football at the next level.”
Etienne did exactly what he set out to, and his recruitment took off following The Opening. Then Tennessee head coach Butch Jones gave him a scholarship offer on his way home afterward. Virginia Tech, Alabama, Texas A&M and others followed suit with offers in the ensuing days.
By the time he signed, Etienne had nearly 30 college options.
“It really sparked my recruitment,” Etienne said of The Opening. “After The Nike Opening, I was on my way home and Tennessee’s coach called and extended me an offer. From there it just took off, and the rest is history.”
Clemson dispensed Etienne’s final scholarship offer on Jan. 12. He committed to the Tigers over in-state LSU exactly two weeks later, and six days after that, he signed on the dotted line with Dabo Swinney’s program.
“I was looking for a balanced offense, a good program, a program that would do it the right way,” Etienne said. “They’re constantly recruiting players and you want to be and play with the best and they always push you to be better. In terms of me coming in at that time and not knowing what I want to do just kind of shed light on the situation. I took my vision from there, and I just really liked it. It was the best option for me.”
Indeed, Etienne made the best choice. He has quickly become a star as a true freshman for the Tigers, establishing himself as the team’s most explosive back while rushing for a team-high 744 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Etienne has come full circle in his freshman year. He is back home where it all began for him, just three days away from playing in the CFP semifinal at the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
Etienne expects to have more than 20 family members and friends in attendance at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Jan 1.
“I try not to think about how big of a stage it is,” Etienne said. “I’m just kind of honing in on the little things I have to do, not really putting things in perspective right now. But later in time I’ll get to do that. Right now I’m just focused on the little things.”