Clemson divides its carries among several running backs. But whenever TRAVIS ETIENNE gets a touch, he's a threat to score
THEY ALL came to see Travis Etienne. Coaches from Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M and other powerhouses gathered around the practice field at Jennings (La.) High to see the junior running back who had only recently appeared on the recruiting radar. Some wielded small handheld video recorders; others used iPhones. All were determined to capture evidence of an alleged speedster who, during his first true recruiting camp in the spring of his junior year, ran the 40 in 4.32. Yet after a few minutes of practice, Etienne had not appeared for a single snap.
"You're gimpy," offensive coordinator James Estes told Etienne, who two days earlier had strained his thigh during a sprint at a track meet. "You don't need to run." But Etienne sneaked into the huddle with the scout team offense and scored on his first touch. Estes realized he couldn't stand in the way of his star's competitiveness. "He had nine carries," the coach recalls. "He decimated the defense to a point where the defensive coordinator shut down practice."
You can guess what happened next: The coaches got their video, and Etienne established himself as a much-coveted back. After signing with Clemson he piled up 766 yards and 13 touchdowns on just 107 carries as a true freshman. This season he rushed for 1,463 yards and a school-record 21 TDs, earning ACC player of the year, and helping the Tigers return to the College Football Playoff.
At 5'10", 200 pounds, Etienne relies on a quick first step and blinding acceleration. Those who know him well say he masks his talents with humility. "I realize that I'm good, but people mention me with some of the best," Etienne says. "I don't feel like I've gained that recognition and respect to be mentioned with them yet."
Clemson's coaches are still reluctant to overuse Etienne, though for different reasons. He carried the ball just 13.5 times a game this year, only twice eclipsing the 20-rush mark. Etienne averaged 8.3 yards per carry, fifth best in the nation, and a touchdown every 8.4 runs—the lowest total for a starting FBS tailback in four years.
Clemson's use of Etienne represents the shift in college football from feature backs to a running-back-by-committee. For the first time since 1990, no running back in the nation exceeded 25 carries a game. The top five rushers by attempts this season averaged 22.14 carries, the lowest mark since 1964. Over the past two seasons only one team in the CFP has had a rusher with 200 or more carries; in the three previous playoffs there were nine such runners.
There are caveats: Notre Dame senior Dexter Williams (142 attempts) missed the first four games on suspension, and Oklahoma lost leading rusher Rodney Anderson in Week 2. But Alabama has three backs at nearly 100 carries each—Damien Harris (126), Najee Harris (102) and Josh Jacobs (94)—and Etienne leads a Tigers ensemble that includes Tavien Feaster (71), Adam Choice (68) and Lyn-J Dixon (56).
"It's definitely been an evolution with regard to that position," says Phil Savage, a former NFL scout and executive who's now the general manager of the Arizona Hotshots in the upstart pro league, Alliance of American Football. Most industry experts attribute this to a wider shift, from the I formation to the spread, but they also point to an increased awareness of the running back's lifespan, which is the shortest of any position's in the NFL. "In pro football, you can still have a bell cow, but they've tried to carve up the position because of the wear and tear and longevity," Savage says. "You may have a bit of a trickle down effect as it relates to college teams."
This isn't completely new. Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn, with the Buccaneers, popularized a shared approach 20 years ago, and Jim Taylor and Paul Hornung, with the Packers, did it as far back as 1960. But today, it is more commonplace than at any other time in the sport's history, college or pro. Yet if there's one back in the CFP with the special ability to dominate a game, it's Etienne.
At first, Etienne committed to Oregon, a decision he hid from even his mother, Donnetta. After the Ducks underwent a coaching change, a new team that had spent scarce time recruiting Etienne entered the picture. Four-star running back Cordarrian Richardson had de-committed from Clemson in late December, so the Tigers began a late pursuit of Etienne. Forty-five minutes after Clemson's national championship game win over Alabama in January 2017, Etienne's coach at Jennings High, Rusty Phelps, received a call about Etienne's availability from the Tigers' running backs coach and co-offensive coordinator, Tony Elliott. Phelps, so shocked by the call, thought he was being pranked. "I looked up his area code on the Internet," Phelps says, "and, yep, it was South Carolina."
Travis and Donnetta visited campus, loved it and, well, here he is now—two wins from a national championship. Donnetta was expecting more than 100 family members at the Cotton Bowl semifinal with Notre Dame on Dec. 29. Whether he'll get a big workload in the playoffs remains to be seen. Maybe it doesn't matter. Etienne has proved, more than anyone in recent history, that he doesn't need the ball much to be a game-changer.