Travis Etienne’s reluctant embrace of stardom at Clemson

CLEMSON, S.C. — Jim Segura was working the welcome tent at the annual Jennings High School charity softball tournament when he looked up to find Travis Etienne in front of him.

Etienne is the most accomplished player in Jennings High football history, a superstar in the little Louisiana town about 90 miles west from Baton Rouge. Segura, a Jennings lifer and longtime supporter of the high school football team, volunteers at the event every July, a series of charity games featuring alumni from the football team.

Etienne’s mere appearance turned the softball game into spectacle. But as Segura shook his hand and said hello, the Clemson star flashed a big smile with his arm outstretched holding a $20 bill, insisting he pay his entry fee just like everyone else.

“They want to hype it up and have parades and stuff,” said Donnetta Etienne, Travis’ mother. “Travis is always low-key. We want him to feel normal, so when he comes to town, no one knows until he gets here.”

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During the game, Segura said, Etienne struck out swinging, which brought about uproarious laughter. Afterward, Etienne held a mock media conference to explain himself. He has always been more comfortable dissecting his failures than hyping his success.

And after Clemson’s 52-14 win against Georgia Tech this past Thursday night, a career night in which Etienne rushed for 205 yards and three touchdowns on just 12 carries, the tailback found his mother amid the scrum of family and friends and all he wanted to talk about was his first-quarter fumble.

His 90-yard touchdown run that tied a Clemson record? It was hardly worth noting. “Oh, I had a few 90-yarders in high school,” he said with nonchalance.

It’s getting tough for the rest of the football world to so easily shrug off Etienne’s brilliance these days. Even if his quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, entered the season with far better odds to win the Heisman Trophy, Etienne’s play keeps reminding fans he has a strong case, too. He’s just not very good at talking the talk.

During practice a few weeks ago, Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott was riding Etienne. This is nothing new. Elliott has spent the better part of the past three years pushing Etienne, reminding him nothing’s ever quite good enough. That’s not a complaint; it’s exactly the type of coaching Etienne wants.

But what stood out about this practice was something Elliott said — his coach reminded him there are higher expectations for the reigning ACC Player of the Year.

Junior running back Travis Etienne is averaging 8.1 yards per carry during his career at Clemson. Todd Kirkland/Icon Sportswire

It sounded odd. Wait, Etienne thought. Player of the year? Really?

“I was just like, ‘Oh yeah, that is me,'” Etienne said.

It’s only now that Etienne is coming out of his shell. Behind the scenes, teammates talk about the bright smile, the subtle sense of humor and the Cajun eccentricities. Out in front of the cameras with the media, Etienne does most of his talking with the ball in his hands and very little of it with a microphone shoved in his face.

“He’s a quiet guy,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said, “but he plays loud.”

Yeah, his play is the rough equivalent of sitting front row at a Metallica concert.

Back in 2017 at his first camp with Clemson, just weeks after he first arrived on campus, Etienne ripped off six runs of 80 yards or more against the Tigers’ first-team defense. Etienne had been a late addition to the recruiting class, an unexpected perk meant to round out the running back group. Then, he showed up and embarrassed one of the best defenses in the country on Day 1.

“I don’t think we quite knew what we had until he got here,” co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said.

His first year with the program was a blur. Etienne broke one big run after another until he ran out of gas in mid-November. He wasn’t used to the long season, and by the time Clemson reached the Sugar Bowl (a homecoming in Louisiana for Etienne), he had nothing left. So, he went into the offseason humbled and hungry and returned a new man.

In 2018, Etienne ran for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns, despite getting more than 16 carries in a game just twice. He was the lead back, but the position group was crowded and everyone got a share. No wonder he forgot it all added up to a player of the year award. This offseason, he was determined to add more to his game, so he grabbed Lawrence after practice one day and asked him to throw a few balls. Etienne decided running the ball wasn’t enough; he wanted to catch a few passes this year, too.

“I haven’t had to do a lot with him running the football,” Elliott said. “He was born with that. For me, it’s to help him mature mentally and take pride in the other aspects of the game. That’s the biggest change in him.”

On Thursday, for example, Etienne took a handoff, spun out of a tackle, burst through the second level and was gone in a flash. The 90-yard run was the coup de grace, but he also had a 48-yarder he took to the house. He likes to finish those long runs, he said, by using the giant video screen above the end zone as a sort of rearview mirror, watching himself on the big screen to see whether any defenders are approaching as he nears the goal line.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney says that Travis Etienne is a “quiet guy” who “plays loud.” Andrew Hancock for ESPN

“The JumboTron is a big step up from high school,” he said.

Want some truly mind-boggling numbers on Etienne?

Since the start of last season, Clemson averages more yards per Etienne run (8.4) than it does on each Lawrence pass (8.2), according to ESPN Stats & Information research.

In his career, Etienne has nearly as many runs of 25 yards or more (27) as he does runs stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage (31).

Warrick Dunn holds the ACC’s career record for rushing average at 6.9 yards per carry, a record that has stood since 1996. Etienne’s career average currently stands at 8.1. The difference between Etienne and the next best runner in conference history is the same as the margin between Dunn and No. 15 on the list.

Yet, Etienne remains Clemson’s other star, toiling in the shadow of the golden-haired QB. And if Etienne, the best runner in ACC history, is Plan B — well, that’s a problem for defenses.

Georgia Tech’s entire game plan in last week’s opener was to keep Lawrence grounded. The Yellow Jackets eschewed everything Clemson’s coaches had seen on film, instead playing two safeties over the top to keep Lawrence from throwing deep. It worked. Lawrence had arguably the worst game of his career, tossing two bad interceptions and finishing with just 168 passing yards.

“When you’ve had the success we’ve had offensively, it’s not out of the ordinary for teams to come in and try to do something different than what their track record has said,” Scott said. “For us, if we identify that early, Travis makes us just as explosive in the run game as Trevor does in the passing game.”

That backfield is a little less crowded this year, too, with Adam Choice gone to the NFL and Tavien Feaster taking the transfer portal to South Carolina. It leaves more of the burden on Etienne — and opens the door for a real run at the Heisman.

“If he keeps playing like that,” Lawrence said after Thursday’s game, “he’s got a real chance.”

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