Why Urban Meyer Is Doing the Right Thing for Travis Etienne

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystMay 19, 2021

Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne Jr. (1) catches a pass during a drill at NFL football rookie minicamp, Saturday, May 15, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
John Raoux/Associated Press

Urban Meyer doesn't know what he's doing as an NFL head coach. Or does he? 

These exact sentiments echoed across social media after Travis Etienne, this year's 25th overall draft pick, spent all of the Jacksonville Jaguars' rookie camp as a wide receiver instead of running back. 

"At the worst-case scenario, you have a running back with the skill set of a wide receiver," Meyer told reporters. "Best-case scenario, you'll have a hybrid player who does both, and that's what we're hoping to develop out of Travis."

The flippancy of the remark bordered on egotistical.

Sure, let's take the ACC's all-time leading rusher, draft him with a first-round pick and immediately move him to wide receiver. He'll be fine. We know exactly what we're doing. 

Everyone saw this story unfold before with another ultra-successful collegiate head coach who came into the NFL and wanted complete control of his organization's operations. He instilled his specific way of doing things to the franchise's eventual detriment. 

Meyer is vastly different from Chip Kelly, though. 

Kelly was too beholden to his system. Once opponents adjusted, he never evolved from what made him initially successful. 

The new Jaguars football czar has always taken a different approach, and Etienne's usage serves as a microcosm for his viewpoint. Meyer understands an important concept that some other coaches throughout the league don't quite grasp: It's the Jimmys and Joes, not the X's and O's. 

"If you know me, you know I think any offense can work if you have the right personnel back. Offenses are overrated. People are not," Meyer told the Orlando Sentinel's Chris Harry in 2009 (h/t Smart Football's Chris Brown). "The NFL will take a quarterback and put him on a very bad team and call him a bust. Never mind that the defense ranks last in the league and there's no offensive line. ... It's personnel based."

Meyer is one of the forefathers of football's spread revolution. His teams won at every stop from Bowling Green and back around to Ohio State. Certain staples exist in all offenses. And the Jaguars are catering theirs to fit Meyer's preferred vision. 

John Raoux/Associated Press

The basic tenet of Meyer's approach is simple: spread the field and gain a numbers advantage. The offense should never be in a position where the ball-carrierbe it the running back, receiver or quarterbackis faced with handling an unblocked defender. By stretching the field horizontally, the scheme stresses the defense to the point of breaking, which it often did at the collegiate level. 

Although offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell will serve as the Jaguars' play-caller, Meyer's fingerprints will be all over the scheme. 

"His ability to adapt to my vision of the offense, which is little different maybe than he's done in the past," Meyer told reporters. "... I'm certainly not going to call plays, that's his responsibility, but I have a real clear vision about what I want the offense to look like and he was great."

The H-back (often referred to as "Percy position" in honor of Percy Harvin) is a vital component in Meyer's system. The position is a hybrid who plays both wide receiver and running back, which he wants Etienne to be in Jacksonville.

"He's the Percy Harvin, we're hoping. I mean, those are big shoes, when you say something like that," the coach said during an interview on 1010XL 92.5 FM JAX Sports Radio (h/t the Spun's Chris Rosvoglou). "But you've got Parris Campbell, you've got Curtis Samuel, those types of players. Offensive coordinators love those kind of guys who can do multiple things.”

It isn't an unfair assessment from a physical standpoint.

Pre-draft Athletic Testing: Percy Harvin v. Travis Etienne
PlayerHeightWeight40-yard dashVerticalBroad

Harvin, whom the Minnesota Vikings selected in the first round of the 2009 draft, made an immediate impact as the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. In his first three seasons, Harvin averaged 1,070.7 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately, injuries robbed the electric playmaker of a full and lasting career. 

While the two differ from a skill-set perspective, Etienne could also become of one the league's most dynamic weapons. He certainly understood the implications of making the transition: 

"Football is a game of matchups. I feel like I create a problem outside for a linebacker. We're just trying to get the best matchups for us to go out there and make plays and do what's best for the team. I feel like if I really hone in on my skills and just keep working at it, work on my route running ability and really focus in on what the plan is and buy into that, we'll make plays; we're playmakers."

For some, the idea might seem a little off after the two-time consensus All-American ran for 4,952 yards and 70 touchdowns during his four seasons with the Tigers. At the same time, the Jaguars see him as an explosive mismatch waiting to happen.

Etienne is a natural receiver out of the backfield. According to Pro Football Focus, the two-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year led all running backs last season in receiving grade (90.9), receiving yards (588) and first-down or touchdowns receptions (29). 

New Jaguars quarterback and former Clemson teammate Trevor Lawrence approved of Meyer's plans for Etienne: 

"I'm glad he's getting work that, getting those reps right now. He's just a dynamic player. He can do a lot of different things, but that's something that he's not very used to. At Clemson he was pretty much in the backfield all the time. He ran a lot of routes out of the backfield, but splitting out wide is something he hasn't done a lot." 

Etienne will line up wide, in the slot on the wing and in the backfield alongside fellow tailbacks James Robinson and Carlos Hyde. 

At its heart, Meyer's scheme is a run-first offense. During his seven seasons at Ohio State, the Buckeyes finished outside of the top 17 in rushing offense only once, which turned out to be his final year on campus. 

Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

In other words, the Jaguars will run the ball, and they have the personnel to do so. 

Robinson set an undrafted rookie record in 2020 with 1,414 yards from scrimmage, while Hyde brings a physical downhill running style. 

Lawrence doesn't run as much as some of Meyer's previous quarterbacks. But this year's No. 1 overall pick is more than capable of orchestrating the offense and breaking a big run every now and again.  

Laviska Shenault Jr. could also play H-back when Etienne is lined up as a traditional tailback. Shenault falls on the opposite side of the spectrum in that he's a wide receiver who runs like a running back once he catches the ball. Robinson could add some depth as well after grabbing 49 passes last season. 

Meyer expressed his excitement on 1010XL 92.5 FM JAX Sports Radio about how many options he has: 

"I think you need complements. I just love great backs. And at Ohio State, we had Zeke Elliott, Carlos Hyde. And right now, we have James Robinson—who is a stud—and Carlos Hyde, who I have a great history with. So we have two big, downhill backs—and they can do other things, too—but I think Travis is he's that dual."

The Jaguars can mix and match personnel to keep opposing defenses on their heels, yet Etienne should be the focal point. 

Comparisons to Harvin are natural, but the rookie back should be able to do even more in the Jaguars offense. Etienne could develop along the lines of the Carolina Panthers do-it-all back Christian McCaffrey and New Orleans Saints tailback Alvin Kamara as long as the Jaguars maximize his ability.

Jacksonville already started to do so by making Etienne a positionless performer who can be an effective weapon in the run and pass games. 

"I feel like it's going to help me maximize my opportunity, maximize my skill set, so I feel like Coach knows what he's doing," Etienne said. "He's doing what's best for the team and I feel like it's going to work out really well."


Brent Sobleski covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @brentsobleski.


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