When it comes to Clemson’s skill players in 2020, the Tigers are set. Of course, it helps that running back Travis Etienne decided to return to Clemson for his senior season
With Etienne joining quarterback Trevor Lawrence, wide receiver Justyn Ross and tight end Braden Galloway, all of sudden Clemson’s offense has a chance to be one of the best in the country next season.
Granted, the Tigers do have to replace four starters up front on the offensive line, but offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell feels good about who will replace Sean Pollard at center, Gage Cervenka at right guard, John Simpson at left guard and Tremayne Anchrum at right tackle. Of course, Jackson Carman will return as the starting left tackle after starting every game there in 2019.
Based off playing time in 2019, it would appear redshirt junior Matt Bockhorst is likely to get the start at left guard, redshirt freshman Hunter Rayburn will likely be the favorite at center, sophomore Will Putnam at right guard and redshirt sophomore Jordan McFadden at right tackle. With the exception of Rayburn, they all got decent playing time as backups in 2019.
With the offensive line basically new, Etienne’s return will benefit the Tigers greatly in the passing game. The Jennings, La., native showed a great deal of improvement in pass protection last season, especially during the College Football Playoff.
“We are just super pumped,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said recently. “We are excited to have him back and graduate in December and leave here as one of the greatest backs probably in college football history by the end of this year. So, let’s go! 2020, let’s go! New decade! It is pretty cool to kickoff this new decade with Travis Etienne in the backfield.”
Etienne also became a valuable weapon out of the backfield. He finished third on the team with 37 receptions for 432 yards and four touchdowns. He averaged 11.7 yards per carry.
With Etienne’s return, you have to imagine Swinney promised the running back more carries. Despite being the ACC Player of the Year for a second straight season, the 5-10, 210-pound running back averaged just 13.8 carries per game in 2019.
The most carries he had in a game all season was 17 against Florida State on Oct. 12.
Etienne finished the 2019 season with 1,614 yards, the second-best single season rushing mark in school history. Only his 1,658 yards in 2018 was better.
He also finished the year with 19 rushing touchdowns and four receiving touchdowns. His 23 total touchdowns rank second to his 26 in 2018.
Etienne, who already owns just about every Clemson rushing record in the book, now has an opportunity to re-write the record books in the ACC, as well. The Clemson running back is just 565 yards shy of breaking the ACC’s all-time rushing record and 795 yards short of becoming the all-time leader in yards from scrimmage.
He currently has 4,038 yards and is the only Clemson running back to ever eclipse 4,000 rushing yards in a career.
“He loves his brothers, but more importantly, he went through the process the right way and made a decision for the right reasons and he values his education,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “He understands that football is a big part of his life, but it will go away at some point. But his education will always be there.”
With Etienne back, it will take some of the pressure off Lawrence, who will be anxious to get on the field after his disappointing performance in the national championship game.
Despite what happened in the title game, Lawrence had a very good year. The All-ACC quarterback still threw for 3,665 yards in 2019, while completing 65.8 percent of his passes. He went the last eight games of the season without throwing an interception, while tossing 36 touchdowns altogether.
Lawrence also became more of a runner in 2019, rushing for 563 yards and nine touchdowns. He averaged 5.5 yards per carry. His best game came in the Fiesta Bowl when he rushed for a career-best 107 yards and scored on a 67-yard touchdown, also a career best, in leading the Tigers back from a 16-0 deficit to win the game.
Ross caught a team-high 66 passes last year for 865 yards and scored eight touchdowns. Amari Rodgers also returns. He was fourth on the team with 30 catches for 426 yards and four touchdowns.
The coaches are hopeful Joseph Ngata and Frank Ladson can continue to improve, especially with Tee Higgins opting for the NFL, while Diondre Overton has graduated. Galloway showed potential as another weapon in the national championship game when he caught two passes for 60 yards.
With Galloway back in the fold, the Seneca product can open up the middle of the field, something that was missing from the Clemson offense in 2019.
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