Travis Etienne Jr.
RB | Clemson Tigers | 5-10 | 210 lbs.
Jennings, Louisiana isn’t typical ACC country. But the story of the greatest running back in ACC history was nearly a story set in the SEC — not in Baton Rouge, but College Station. No, Travis Etienne never contemplated transferring out of Clemson Orange garb. In fact, Etienne didn’t sign on with Clemson until Cordarrian Richardson, a behemoth 6-foot, 240 pound, highly-decorated back out of Tennessee, decommitted from the Tigers. Prior to that, Etienne was set to pack his top-20 RB prospect bags [ranked by both ESPN (No. 13) and 247Sports (No. 16)] for Texas A&M. Only six days after immediately submitting a verbal pledge to Clemson following Richardson's change of decision, “Run E-T-N” signed his official papers to join the Tigers as their very last commitment of the 2017 class. Richardson changed his commitment over to play for HC Scott Frost at UCF. Funnily enough, after Frost left to take the same position at Nebraska, Cordarrian would end up transferring to the Aggies.
Etienne would be the first Clemson signing out of the state of Louisiana in over 15 years. LSU HC Ed Orgeron was torn up about losing out on Etienne throughout his time with Clemson. But LSU and Orgeron, who was only the DL coach at the time, never offered Travis since they were concerned it would scare away Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Cam Akers. As a senior at Jennings High School, around 93 miles west of LSU in Baton Rouge, Etienne didn’t quite match up to the insane 2,952 rushing yards, 50 total TDs (43 rushing, three receiving, and four on kickoff returns) he produced during his junior season. But nobody complained when Etienne rushed for 2,459 yards and 35 TDs to capture his second consecutive Class 3A Offensive MVP award by the Louisiana Sportswriters Association.
Etienne’s reputation as a prospect in high school was partially damaged from playing for a team ranked outside of the top-2,500 schools nationally, top-50 in the state of Louisiana. Be that as it may, after guiding his program to four straight College Football Playoff appearances, a pair of national championship representations, one national title (2018), and four ACC titles, those perceptions are a distant memory. Etienne was a member of the Clemson group that ended as the first FBS senior class in a decade to finish undefeated at home. A Week 13, 52-17 destruction of the Pittsburgh Panthers pushed the Tigers’ ‘17 senior class to a 27-0 record playing in South Carolina’s version of Death Valley.
Fun trivia: many pronounce “Etienne” as “E-T-N,” mostly due to the nickname that has followed him. Even in his home state, they incorrectly pronounce it “Ay-Chan.” However, it’s actually pronounced “Eh-Tee-In.”
Looking back to Etienne’s first two seasons with Clemson, it’s simply shocking that he wasn’t relied upon in the passing attack. It was Tavien Feaster who OC Tony Elliott would feature on passing downs instead of Etienne. His HS squad played from a triple-option scheme out of the flexbone. Etienne was always the first option lined up as the “fullback” featured with the dive to set up the rest of the offense. The Bulldogs only passed on 70 plays compared to 465 rushing attempts during his senior season. So, the fact that it took two full seasons to corral those integral passing snaps all to himself provides much of that answer, but it’s still a shame.
The Clemson coaching staff had next to nothing from hisHudl senior highlight film as a receiver, or, entirely unsurprisingly, in pass protection. You need to skip to the 2:30 mark in the video to see Etienne catch his first pass. At 4:15, you see a perfect example of just how dangerous he is as a kick returner. His blazing speed, responsive change of direction (COD) are on full display. Etienne was timed with a 4.43 40 time at the New Orleans Nike Opening Regional in ‘16, narrowly edging Edwards-Helaire (4.47) for the fastest mark. He added an impressive vertical jump of 37.3 inches, but disappointed with a 4.33 second short shuttle. I will have my eyes peeled on Clemson’s Pro Day to see if Etienne is able to post a better time on the shuttle, an important measurement I use to evaluate body control.
Shifting over to hisjunior season highlight reel with Clemson, the very first play of the video facing Georgia Tech showcases one of Etienne’s most effective exotic run concepts: the Draw. Over his Clemson career, Etienne averaged over 11 yards/carry on draw plays, but the scheme was only called on less than five percent of career carries. You can see additional examples at 1:15 facing Charlotte, another at 2:36, and at 7:58 at NC State.. I refer to the draw as “exotic” for a reason. In order for the draw concept to work — as it “draws” edge defenders upfield as if to indicate a pass is coming before handing off to the RB — the D-linemen must be fooled for maximum gains. Overreliance leads to recognition.
As you watch the footage, for those able to diagnose the concept, you’ll see a frequently occurring theme: Inside Zone blocking. That’s not to say Clemson never called for Outside Zone blocking (1:24 vs. Charlotte), just that they did so on fewer than one-fifth the rate of inside zone during his career. From charting each of his career handoffs, the other two concepts you’ll see the most are Power and Counter (Misdirection). Our first example of the Counter concept can be found at 1:50 facing North Carolina. The carry offers an example of Etienne’s sudden change-of-direction (COD) ability, adjusting to TE J.C.Chalk losing badly to the right edge that disrupted both pull blocks. You can also see UNC LB Chazz Surratt — Sage Surratt’s older brother — correctly anticipating the call but Etienne’s sudden shift from Surratt’s E- into the B-gap responsibility of LB Jeremiah Gemmel, who inexcusably abandons his gap, proves masterful. Another example, also circling his plus vision, occurs at 9:05 against Wake Forest. Etienne patiently waits for his Counter blocks to develop before shifting into high gear, spinning away from, and stiff-arming defenders to tack on another 10 yards.
Skip to 2:19 against Florida State to see one of Etienne’s most lethal tools, also evident in his HS footage: the stiff arm. Etienne stiff-arms former FSU DBs Cyrus Fagan and A.J. Lytton to dramatic effect. He may not have the bruising size of a Najee Harris (not many do), but at 4:11 we see him carry three defenders into the end zone in the goal-to-go (G2G) situation. At 8:33 in the video, Etienne has already established himself as one of the premiere receiving backs in the nation, here on an underthrown wheel route from Trevor Lawrence. Another example of Travis using every ounce of his frame to reach paydirt in a G2G can be found at 8:47.
Skipping ahead to the opening round of the playoffs facing Ohio State (12:02 mark), you see another common concept with the O-line actually inside zone blocking for the QB, and Lawrence pitching to Etienne. He makes a nice cut to evade Jordan Fuller before forcing missed tackles by Malik Harrison and Tuf Borland to reach the end zone. One of the setups that you’ll see Etienne frequently involved in his NFL future will be the Draw Screen shown at 12:22. His ability in this scheme truly sets him apart as the top receiving back in the class. We could refer to a generic “elite vision” statement to describe the play but, shown very well in the view at 12:38, Etienne can be seen identifying each Buckeye defender prior to looking back to Lawrence for the ball. When he has the ball in his hands, Etienne is already scheming moves to separate from each.
Clemson’s O-line may’ve focused the majority of their blocking attention toward the inside zone setup but, shown at 12:51 facing LSU in the CFP National Championship, Etienne’s attention is not limited to the inside gaps. He loves bouncing it outside to the E-gap when outside LBs cheat to the inside, as seen with K'Lavon Chaisson on this play. Etienne’s acceleration is on full display during the 30-yard gain. On the final play, we see him push two-yards through a 100-pound weight disadvantage with Rashard Lawrence for the score. Had Etienne declared for the draft following his junior season, we very likely would’ve seen another RB drafted in the first round (CEH). But he shocked the nation with his declaration of returning for his senior season. Whereas Najee Harris made himself a lot of money returning to school, the early judgment is that Etienne may have actually lost a few after a dropoff in production during his senior season. Let’s take a look with this2020 highlight reel.
Our first play shows us that the Clemson inside zone blocking will continue to be featured. We can also see an early example (0:34) of Etienne shredding with a Draw against Wake. We don’t have the luxury of the end zone view to see the extent, but the play at 0:47 is another target out of the backfield where we can see Etienne locating secondary defenders prior to the pass to already have attack lanes identified. This tendency will allow Etienne to adjust to the speed of the NFL, playing an immediate role as a receiver. We see a factor proving vital to Etienne’s success on the very next play (1:12). A G2G situation with the Tigers in 11 personnel and utilizing the run-pass option (RPO). Etienne had a near-80% TD success rate at the goal line with the offense spread out (11 personnel), compared to 48% with an additional player on the O-line (12 personnel). This play continues to define Etienne as a future goal line option by the team that drafts him. But that team will need to utilize the proper scheming.
Should you require another example of Etienne’s receiving vision, check out the 2:02 mark. If we judge Etienne by the Counter at 2:24, his stock would be considered just as high as ever, showcasing elite vision, COD, his classic stiff arm chained with a nasty spin, and NFL-level acceleration. Facing the Hurricanes at 4:04, Etienne’s speed is on full display blazing a path down the boundary sideline on another Counter handoff. Since Etienne really drove home his level of strong hands during his senior season, we have a string of plays showcasing his receiving ability. None of them are as revealing as at 3:37. Etienne has his blocking lanes, defender placement identified prior to the looking back for the pass. The series of slight stutter steps may seem inadvertent, but they are far from it. Etienne is using the Miami defender’s own speed against themselves. The most sudden, lethal being on DJ Ivey, shown best at precisely from the end zone angle at the 4:30 mark.
At the 5:36 mark, Clemson is in a G2G situation, in 11 personnel, inside zone blocking from the O-line, and chained with an RPO. We also see Etienne use another stutter step to lure the left edge inside in order to bounce it outside for a walk-in score. The rest of his highlights only show much of the same. No sign of injury. No sign of Etienne being out of shape. No sign of decreased efficiency. Skipping ahead to facing one of the most underrated run defenses in the entire country, Pittsburgh, at the 4:59 mark, you can see Etienne in a G2G with every one of the previous factors. His outstanding ability to properly identify gap weakness gives the impression of hitting the easy button. That’s precisely what we want to see in zone blocking. On the very next play, the exact same setup, and the same result. At 9:35 facing Notre Dame, you have a prime example of Etienne’s top-end speed, running through arm tackles, and outrunning an elite Irish defense.
In my view, Etienne’s role will not be as sensitive as that of Najee Harris’. But I should explain that statement about Harris. Najee has the opportunity to find his name within the top-five fantasy RBs in Year 2. If he lands within an offense dedicated to splitting the backfield, that placement could be set back another season. With Etienne, his receiving ability will trump any lost carries. However, Etienne simply must collect the goal-line job. Top college RBs always run the risk of being drafted by a team viewing them as a secondary, situational option.
As long as Etienne tests out the way I think he will at Clemson’s Pro Day, it will most likely take draft capital far too valuable to typecast him into a situational role. In my opinion, both Harris and Etienne deserve to be selected in the first round in April. An NFL team is going to view the same tape and fall in love with Etienne. It will also likely be a team dedicated toward a wide-open, fast-paced offense, and fielding an athletic QB. Envisioning Etienne within a traditional pro-style offense is far from ideal; he thrives within a read-option, RPO-heavy scheme with an O-line skilled at inside zone blocking.
Albeit with far less evidence on the college production front, Etienne reminds me so much of another ACC back… Cam Akers. Akers was able to shift from Florida State’s inside zone-heavy blocking to the Rams’ outside zone with excellent results. I feel Etienne is also capable of that transition. Akers languished on some of the Seminoles’ most forgettable rosters, but still flashed more than enough ability in his college film to see his high school prospect status translate into a second-round pick.
Due to Etienne’s overly impressive body of work, he is much more likely to hear his name called on Day 1. One team that I think could show interest that early is Miami at 1.18, where I feel would be the optimal landing spot. The Dolphins utilized inside zone blocking at a top-10 rate, top-three rate of Counter, and, interestingly, top-five usage of Draws this season. They’ll be transitioning away from Chan Gailey as their OC, but retained RB Coach Eric Studesville as co-OC.
The Bottom Line
The question on everyone’s fantasy mind is whether Etienne has the potential to be a workhorse back. As I’ve already explained, in order to select Etienne, a team will need to be ready to commit control of their backfield. However, Etienne will also need to produce in order to hold on to that role in future seasons. Whatever Etienne lacks in size compared to Harris is more than made up for with his maneuverability and eye-popping speed. We’ve already seen the extent of the success from Myles Gaskin in the featured role for the Dolphins. Gaskin has certainly proved himself as a player worthy of his NFL roster spot, but the addition of Etienne would push him into a distant secondary role. Of course, Etienne may be skipped over by Miami entirely. Even if that is the case, every team in need at the position will have his name toward the top of their board.
Any concerns about a drop in production this season can, in my opinion, be entirely explained away as a result of Clemson resting their all-time leading rusher in a long list of blowout victories rather than anything related to Etienne’s play. What we should all expect is to hear Etienne’s name called first or second at the position, landing with a team dedicated to featuring his talents.
Sans Superflex formats, Etienne falls in as my RB2, a hair behind Harris, as the most talented receiver, and possessing top-three breakaway ability in the class. In my overall dynasty ranks, I have Harris and Etienne behind only Ja’Marr Chase. That trio should prove to be locks for top fantasy production for many years to come.