It is not easy playing running back for Clemson.
Besides carrying the football and running it between the tackles and off tackle, he has to first understand where he is supposed to run. Clemson runs a zone-blocking scheme so the running backs have to show patience and sometimes wait on the holes to open up to run.
Then there comes the passing game. The back doesn’t just lineup and go out for a pass, he has to first read the defense, read the fronts, read the coverages, try to tell where a blitz might be coming from and recognize who is doing what and understanding what his responsibilities are.
“It’s tough from day one. The day and age of (defenses) just sitting still, not moving and lining up and letting you identify them just doesn’t happen,” Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott said. “You’ve got to build an understanding of front recognition. Then from the front determine the linebackers. Then it’s onto your secondary recognition.
“All that stuff changes, so it’s a communication with the offensive line. It takes them about a year to get a good understanding.”
That’s why Travis Etienne did not see the field as often as the fans would have liked last season. Coming in last summer, instead of the spring, it took him a while to learn just the basic concepts so he could get on the field or come into the game in certain situations.
However, the defenses picked up on Etienne’s inexperience and lack of knowledge and by the end of the year Clemson could not afford to have him on the field in obvious passing situations. When he was, he struggled, like in a couple of instances in the Sugar Bowl.
However, Elliott has seen an improvement in his sophomore running back going into year two. He can tell having a full spring and summer under his belt has helped. He can also tell he has watched film and has a better understanding of the offense. He understands his role a lot more, and it’s showing in camp.
“You see that he is trying to use a lot more technique in his pass protection,” Elliott said. “His knowledge is much improved. There are things I’m starting to see like his head movement. I can tell that it’s making sense.
“As soon as his head moves side to side and it’s in correlation to what the offensive line and quarterbacks are telling him, that’s when you know a back is starting to become comfortable.”
And a comfortable Travis Etienne means the Clemson offense will be a little bit more explosive than it was last year.