Travis Etienne was Clemson’s best running back with the ball in his hands last season. Apparently the sophomore has done enough to prove that he is ready to be an every-down back as well.
Etienne is listed as Clemson’s starting running back on its preseason depth chart, which was released last month.
The Louisiana native led the Tigers in rushing yards (766), yards per carry (7.2) and touchdowns (13) last year but struggled in pass protection. He made improving without the ball a focus during the spring, and it appears as though he has done enough to prove that he can be trusted in all situations.
Running backs coach Tony Elliott admitted this spring that it usually takes time for younger players to realize how important pass protection is.
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“It’s a shock for any of these guys that are highly talented, highly recruited, and they come in and they have success. But they also had some veteran guys that were able to take some of the load off of them. But now they’re considered guys with experience, and now they’ve got to function in all situations,” Elliott said. “So much of what we do in this offense relies on the running back — pass protection and route running and different things that we do … That’s where those guys have to grow to make sure that we can function. It’s very, very hard to play fast with tempo and sub guys out and be situational backs.”
Etienne showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman in 2017, using his explosiveness to run away from defenders and his power to run through them.
But he also missed perhaps the biggest block of the season in the third quarter of the Sugar Bowl against Alabama.
The Tigers trailed 10-6 but were driving when Kelly Bryant dropped back to pass. Bryant was hit by Alabama linebacker Anfernee Jennings, causing the ball to float into the air. It was intercepted, and the game turned in an instance. The Crimson Tide went on to win 24-6.
Etienne was supposed to block Jennings on the play, but he was out of position, leading to Bryant getting hit and eventually picked off.
“It just made me realize I have to get better in that area. It’s just really taking a look in the mirror and worrying about what I have to worry about and not really focusing on everyone else around me because everyone’s going to do their job,” Etienne said. “So just focus on what I’ve got to do and I’ll be a much better player.”
Etienne is pleased with the progress he made this spring, and while he acknowledged that there is still work to do, he believes he has gained the trust of his teammates and coaches.
“My pass protection has definitely come a long way. I mean, just being in the position to get the guy and just being able to stop him from me giving up a sack, I’m definitely where I want to be technique-wise. I’ve just got a little more to clean up, but I definitely made a huge improvement,” he said. “My intelligence for the game has grown. I’m definitely out there, I can process a lot more and just see things before they happen. Just play in my mind before it happens.”
Tavien Feaster was Clemson's starting running back for the majority of last season, and he will be in the mix again in 2018. He is listed alongside Adam Choice as the backup for this season.
But it is Etienne who has the biggest expectations entering the year.
"In my unit, Travis is the one that I’d like to see take a step. I’ve gotta remind myself that he’s a freshman," Elliott said. "I think he jumped out there and played ahead of his time and now this is where he has to make up for that in the offseason. So would like to see him just try to increase his size as much as he can in a good way, increase his strength as much as he can."