Travis Etienne, Clemson's Forgotten Star, Can 'Change the Game at Any Time'

Adam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterDecember 27, 2019

CLEMSON, SOUTH CAROLINA - NOVEMBER 02: Travis Etienne #9 of the Clemson Tigers runs for a touchdown as against the Wofford Terriers  during their game at Memorial Stadium on November 02, 2019 in Clemson, South Carolina. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

Travis Etienne is missing again.

It is late November, and the finalists for the Doak Walker Award, the honor given to the nation's top running back, have just been released.

Etienne isn't one of them, despite averaging more yards per carry than any player in college football this season for a Clemson team within sight of its second consecutive national championship.

"It really doesn't matter to me," Etienne says of the snub. "I just have to go back to the drawing board to get better and learn from it. In the future, I need to put myself in a position where they can't avoid inviting me to the award."

The oversight is nothing new for a player who's working in the shadow of a generational quarterback who has hair seemingly constructed for a shampoo endorsement. It's also not something he minds.

His coach, however, refuses to go quietly. And he rarely does, which is yet another reason Etienne can be easily forgotten. Dabo Swinney knows it's not his running back's nature to take issue with anything. So he takes issue with the omission on his behalf.

"If there's a running back award and Travis Etienne isn't in the finals of it, what a joke, really," the Clemson coach tells reporters a few hours before Etienne speaks with Bleacher Report. "... This guy is off-the-charts special. It's just is what it is. He's the best back in the country."

The numbers support Swinney's claim, even if it's simmered in favoritism. This season, the 20-year-old Etienne is averaging 8.24 yards per carry. He's scored 19 touchdowns and rushed for 1,500 yards on only 182 carries. He's also been a threat as a receiver, catching 29 passes for 298 yards.

In short, he's been the most explosive player on a team full of explosive players. A program headed to the Fiesta Bowl to take on fellow undefeated Ohio State. 

If all goes well, Etienne could close out his season and perhaps his career in New Orleans for the national championship—a three-hour drive from his hometown of Jennings, Louisiana.

It's a town that made him who he is. A star player far more comfortable living in the background. Although, given his football brilliance, losing sight of him is becoming increasingly more difficult.

Rusty Phelps was resting comfortably on his couch when his phone began to erupt. It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon in April 2016, and the head coach of Jennings High School was suddenly Googling unfamiliar area codes across the country because of calls from people who wanted to know more about his star running back.

It was a moment Phelps was waiting for, especially after Etienne ran for nearly 3,000 yards and 40 touchdowns his junior season, but the coach had no idea what had prompted the sudden deluge months later.

Tennessee. Oklahoma. Oregon. Texas. One after the next, the inquiries kept coming. He soon found out the outpouring of intrigue emerged from a single 40-yard dash.

Travis Etienne Jr⁶𓅓 @swaggy_t1

Check out my highlights🎱 https://t.co/4jc8XsEELX https://t.co/j7PXPC3IkU

Before then, the interest in Etienne was minimal. South Alabama and Louisiana Monroe reached out, but the feelers didn't go beyond that level. "Initially, my recruitment was nonexistent," Etienne recalls. "Honestly, it all came together after my junior year and that run."

Part of the problem was where he came from. "There's about 12,000 people," Etienne says. "It's really country." Living and dominating in a small town provided just enough isolation for Etienne to go unnoticed, at least at first.

"You were amazed at some of the things you saw during games," Phelps says. "Travis would run for 300 yards and score six or seven touchdowns like it was nothing. He's still doing it now at the highest level of college football, and you still get amazed at some of the runs and stuff that you see."

The other issue was that, unlike many players who hoped to garner interest, Etienne didn't attend many football camps. As a result, he stayed under the radar.

Coming off his dominant season, however, Etienne finally decided to venture out after failing to generate the scholarship offers he wanted. He picked The Opening regional event in New Orleans, largely because he knew players would run the 40-yard dash and a "fastest man" would be crowned.

So he and his family made the three-hour trek to New Orleans. His mother, Donetta, dropped Travis off at the field and headed out to have lunch. When they came back, they saw their son surrounded by cameras and signing autographs for fans who were suddenly interested in his signature.

Travis was indeed the fastest man at the regional, running the 40-yard dash in 4.38 seconds.

In an instant, his football life changed. Within the first 15 minutes of the car ride back to Jennings, Etienne received an offer from Tennessee.

"I got like five offers in just the next few hours … before we made it home," Etienne recalls. "It just kind of took off from there."

Over the weeks and months that followed, Phelps was repeatedly asked the same questions by assistants who were discovering Etienne for the first time.

"They wanted to know what was wrong with him," Phelps says. "And I really didn't know what to tell them. Put the tape on. He's explosive. He's got great grades. He has a great ACT score. He's very humble."

In the summer of 2016, Etienne verbally committed to Texas A&M. He decommitted a few months later to reevaluate his sudden plethora of options. It wasn't until the early hours of Jan. 10, in the moments following Clemson's victory over Alabama for the national championship, that the program began to show interest in him.

The Tigers had a hole in their recruiting class. Cordarrian Richardson, 247Sports' No. 7 running back in the class of 2017, decommitted deep into the cycle. In need of a back, Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott contacted Phelps to gauge Etienne's interest as national signing day approached.

Within days, Elliott made the visit to Jennings High School to meet with Etienne. The interest was mutual. Etienne had long been a fan of the Tigers—first because of their uniforms, but eventually he came to appreciate how rapidly the program was climbing.

Not long after, Etienne and his family visited Clemson to see the campus. Following years of uncertainty, Etienne found his future program after only 18 days.

These days, Etienne is happy to live in the shadow of quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the 6'6" star who's become one of the faces of college football and a beacon of interest at school.

"Trevor handles all the paparazzi and the media," Etienne says. "I just go out there and play my game, and I definitely love that. Since he's so tall, wherever he goes he's going to stand out. If I go somewhere, I kind of just blend in."

Though his numbers suggest he should be one of college football's biggest stars, Travis Etienne is comfortable playing more of a complementary role to quarterback Trevor Lawrence at Clemson.
Though his numbers suggest he should be one of college football's biggest stars, Travis Etienne is comfortable playing more of a complementary role to quarterback Trevor Lawrence at Clemson.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

At 5'10" and 210 pounds, Etienne can still get lost in a crowd. At least when he is not in motion. But the numbers he has compiled for the nation's most dominant football program over the past three years are staggering.

For most running backs, averaging nearly eight yards per carry for a single game would be a career milestone. Etienne has averaged 8.0 yards for his entire collegiate career. He was recently named ACC Player of the Year for the second consecutive season, becoming the first repeat winner since former Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson.

In that time, he has carried the ball more than 20 times in a game only twice. Given his production, it would be reasonable to expect him to want the ball more. But that wouldn't be true to who he is.

"I definitely could carry the ball a few more times," he says. "But I feel the way we have it set up really works for us. It really gives me a chance to showcase my abilities and do more with less. Every time I touch the ball I feel like I am able to change the game at any time."

His somewhat limited usage has made Etienne an interesting study for NFL scouts and personnel. While he has yet to announce a decision about his football future, the NFL is plenty aware of his talent.

Some view him as merely a complementary piece and a product of his environment: "He's been overrated," one NFL scout says. "But he could be a role player on an outside-zone team."

Others feel more strongly about his game and how it could translate to the pros: "He's a legitimate make-you-miss back with game-breaking speed," another scout says. "He's a lot stronger than he looks and still so fluid and dangerous after initial contact.

"He's the best back in the draft, and it's not really close."

He dreams not of sports cars or lavish homes, but of one day owning a ranch. That may seem like an unusual desire for someone who's closing in on his football fortune, but it's a dream he has had since he was a child. No matter his expected NFL arrival time, Etienne isn't your stereotypical star athlete.

"Just having some cattle, livestock, chicken, horses and all kinds of foreign animals," Etienne says. "Being able to do all sorts of things on the ranch while maintaining a certain lifestyle."

It's a worldview that fits his personality away from football. Quiet. Laid-back. Thoughtful. 

"We live in a small town that has a close-knit community," Donetta says. "Everybody knows everybody, and everybody knows everybody's kids. We all help each other, and we support each other."

To Etienne, of course, it's home, the place where he came to love his mother's fried pork chops—which he ate on Saturdays after high school victories—as much as his grandmother's famous shrimp stew.

The local paper, the Jennings Daily News, has a regular section devoted to Etienne that has chronicled his football journey from high school to Clemson and will continue to do so when he turns pro.

"He's given his town a spark as far as what all he's done in Clemson," Phelps says.

The attention makes Etienne uncomfortable. As did the retiring of his jersey number, No. 8, at a Jennings High football game in November.

With a 40 time that drew the attention of a host of Division I programs, Etienne has averaged 8.0 yards per carry and run for 54 touchdowns in his three seasons under Dabo Swinney.
With a 40 time that drew the attention of a host of Division I programs, Etienne has averaged 8.0 yards per carry and run for 54 touchdowns in his three seasons under Dabo Swinney.Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

"He told me that it was all a lot of fuss over nothing," Phelps adds. "But I felt like this was something we needed to do for him. He's always tried to remove himself from the spotlight and share it with other people. That's just Travis."

While stardom is not something that has come naturally, there is a part of this football path he is traveling that Etienne is ready to embrace. Specifically, what playing in the NFL could mean—not just for his life, but also for those in his hometown, especially the kids who are following him through school.

"It would be a dream come true for me, but I also want it to reflect for the kids back in Jennings, Louisiana, and beyond," Etienne says. "No matter where you're from or however the odds may be stacked against you, if you dedicate your life and believe you could do it, it can be done."

As it turns out, Travis might not be the fastest Etienne in the family. His younger brother, Trevor, is a sophomore running back at Jennings High School who just helped his team reach the Class 3A state title game.

The two talk most days. Sometimes about life, often about football. Trevor says he beat Travis in a race last year, although Travis disagrees on the outcome. Either way, they have a bond and a rivalry that pushes them both.

"To me, he's very explosive," Trevor says of his brother. "He goes from zero to 60 in no time. But I catch the ball better than he does, and I think he would admit that."

On one point there likely is little debate, and that is how Travis' success gave Trevor a recruiting currency his older brother didn't have.

Unlike Travis, who had to wait until deep into his junior year to receive an offer, Trevor was extended a verbal scholarship offer from LSU before his sophomore season started.

In some ways, the gesture was symbolic, and perhaps a means of righting an oversight made years ago. Growing up in a town that lives and dies by LSU football, Travis had visions of one day starring for the Tigers. The team didn't show much interest in him throughout much of his high school career, but that changed when Ed Orgeron was named interim coach in the fall of 2016.

Within 20 minutes of taking over, Orgeron called Phelps and began recruiting Travis.

"We really had not heard from the Tigers, and suddenly Coach O was making up a lot of ground," Phelps says. "It was really close. I mean really, really close."

It's possible the two end up on the same field anyway if Clemson and LSU meet for the national title in New Orleans. 

The prospect of closing out a collegiate career in the shadow of home would, obviously, make the game personal for Etienne and his hometown. More important for his future, it would provide one last chance to show how he can thrive on the biggest of stages. He may not care for it or embrace it like those around him, but it's the kind of stage he was built for.


Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.