The Clemson Tigers and Travis Etienne kicked the 2019 season off just like they ended last season, running hard and making big plays on the ground.
Etienne ran for a career-high 205 yards and tied a career-best with three rushing touchdowns on just 12 carries in the Tigers’ 52-14 victory over Georgia Tech on Thursday night at Death Valley.
The junior back averaged a wild 17.1 yards per carry, but the day didn’t start off so great for him. After an early fumble in the first quarter, Etienne was able to bounce back and have his best game in a Clemson uniform.
“That’s what he’s supposed to do — come back,” co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “Early on — you know Travis will tell you if you talk to him — he was probably just trying to do a little too much. He was just pressing a little bit early on, trying to bounce out a counter that turned into a TFL. The guy actually did a good job putting his shoulder on the ball, and that was a great opportunity for me to coach him up and let him know he needs to get his pads down and protect the ball.
“He’s the guy we’re going to go to, so after plays like that you’ve just got to move on to the next one.”
Last season, Etienne had one of the best seasons a Clemson running back has ever had with a school-record 1,658 yards and a school-record 24 touchdowns on just 204 attempts.
Having such impressive numbers, including averaging 8.1 yards a carry last season, improving on what he did in 2018 will definitely be a challenge. But his performance Thursday is just about as good of a start to the season you could ask for from the reigning ACC Player of the Year.
Even with so much talent already, Elliott still believes Etienne has made major improvements heading into this season, particularly in a leadership role.
“I think he now understands that he has to lead by example in everything he does,” Elliott said. “That was a major positive that he was able to show these other young backs that yeah, you might have had a play where you didn’t end up with what you desired (the fumble) but then you’ve got to bounce back, and he rips off a 90-yard run.
“He’s more engaged in every aspect of the game. He wants to be the leader, he wants to be catching the ball and he wants to improve his pass protection, and the biggest thing moving forward is him being able to keep that intensity.”
Coming into Clemson as a freshman, there wasn’t much hype around Etienne as a three- or four-star recruit, depending on which recruiting service you ask.
With Tavien Feaster then ahead of him, Etienne had to claw his way to the starting position and prove it was him that deserved the starting running back duties.
Two years later, Etienne is a completely different player and is now setting college football ablaze with his breakaway speed and hard-nosed running style. Being with him every step of the way, Elliott has pushed Etienne hard to help him reach his current level of play.
“I take pride in pushing all of my guys,” Elliott said. “Specifically with Travis, I think he’s responded well with just understanding what it means to be a complete player and not just relying on your talent. You’ve got to be able to function in every situation, whether it’s pass protection or catching the ball out of the backfield, and I’ll be honest, I haven’t done much with him running the football (laughing). I think the biggest thing for me is helping him mature mentally and to take pride in other aspects of the game.”
One of the best stories to come out of this offseason is the fact that Etienne approached Trevor Lawrence, wanting to work on catching the ball out of the backfield so he can add that repertoire to his game.
For a guy who is arguably the best pure running back in college football right now, adding that mobility out of the backfield in the passing game can work wonders for his game now and future in the NFL.
“A guy like him, you never want him to get to a point where he just relies on his talent,” Elliott said. “We know how talented he is and how he has a chance to be one of the best to come out of Clemson, and I take pride in pushing him to be the best he can be. Not so I can say or take any credit for it, but he’s got that potential and I want to drive him to that potential.
“It doesn’t take just talent — it takes the mental toughness and the attitude and the mindset to put in the extra work because again, at some point he might get into a locker room where he won’t be the most talented guy. What’s going to be the thing that sets you apart? That separation is going to be all the things you can’t measure at the combine.”
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