As a high school tailback in a distinctly high school offense in Jennings, La., Travis Etienne possessed all the traits to flourish: sleekness, balance, strength, vision — you name it.
“We ran the option, and to be honest with you, third and 8 to us was just like throwing the football to Travis,” said Rusty Phelps, longtime coach and overseer of the split-back veer at Jennings High. “We probably should’ve spent more time (passing) with Travis, but my goodness, he was so easy to hand the ball off to and just watch him get the yards.”
A half-decade later, Etienne’s Friday night rush has evolved into a full-time vocation, complete with extensive prerequisites. Employment in an NFL backfield these days requires soft hands, route discipline and pass-protection chops.
Hence the reason Etienne, the ACC’s career rushing leader, opted to remain at Clemson for his senior year.
“From coming back, I really improved on a lot of things,” he said.
Now, the four-year collegian is a three-down back — and potential first-round draftee.
“Those are two areas (pass catching and pass protection) that he really had to work on after his freshman year,” said USF coach Jeff Scott, Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator for Etienne’s first three seasons with the Tigers. “And he really bought into it and put in the work and was very intentional in that improvement in both those areas.”
While zero consensus exists on how the Bucs plan to use their first-round draft pick (32nd overall), few will argue they could find solid value at running back, where their current depth may be short-lived.
Playoff stalwart Leonard Fournette is on a one-year deal, fourth-year speedster Ronald Jones II is entering the fourth season of his rookie contract (with no fifth-year option), and veteran Giovani Bernard — who signed Monday — also is on a one-year deal.
While Fournette and Jones sparkled at various junctures in 2020 (1,345 combined rushing yards), they led the Bucs in dropped passes with seven and five, respectively. Bernard, by contrast, had at least 30 catches in each of his eight seasons with the Bengals, who released him in a cost-cutting measure. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who played sparingly as a rookie in 2020 (109 rushing yards, five receptions), rounds out the depth chart.
Which leads to Etienne, an 11th-hour Clemson signee in 2017 whose devotion to his craft — and raw fleetness — enabled him to run for 4,952 career yards and total 102 receptions for the Tigers. Forty-eight of his catches came in 2020, establishing a Clemson single-season receptions record for a running back.
“Coming here in high school from a (veer offense), I probably had 16 targets my whole career in high school,” said Etienne, whose hometown of Jennings (population 11,400) is nestled in the rural elbow of Louisiana.
“I have to give a lot of credit to (Clemson receiver and classmate) Amari Rodgers. He really challenged me to get on the jugs after every practice for 30-45 minutes. And we would practice catching tennis balls, too, every day after practice. During the pandemic, I got with (quarterback) Trevor Lawrence out here and caught a lot of balls.”
He also evolved into a serviceable blocker, another skill he simply didn’t require while running for roughly 4,500 yards his final two years at Jennings. Today, NFL.com draft analyst Lance Zierlein’s report on Etienne includes this line: Loves to clean up A-gap blitzers with booming angle block.
“Obviously protecting Tom Brady is a pretty big draw, but he had probably the next-toughest thing in college, protecting Trevor Lawrence,” Scott said. “So it’s not the first time that he’s done something like that.
“He has really good football instincts and football IQ, so I think that he’s been very well trained at Clemson with the cross-reads and all the different things that the backs have to do in pass protection.”
Combine those traits with the one quality that can’t be taught, and Etienne could represent a steal of sorts for the Bucs at No. 32. ESPN’s Todd McShay projects Etienne going as early as No. 23 (to the Jets) in his mock draft.
“Etienne is a home run hitter with fantastic contact balance and improving pass-catching ability,” McShay said.
Phelps said a blistering 40-yard dash time (in the mid-4.3 range) at a New Orleans combine following Etienne’s junior year at Jennings altered the trajectory of his whole career. To that point, he had one Division I-A offer — from South Alabama.
“He wasn’t a big camp guy,” Phelps said. “He was just kind of a guy that would rather be around here playing basketball or hanging out with his buddies, or riding a four-wheeler or whatever.”
But days after that combine, everyone from California to Clemson was on him.
“He got there in fall camp and we went, like, ‘Whoa, this guy can go!’” Scott recalled. “To be honest, we had no idea what we had when we got him committed.”
What they had was a burner, who evolved into a blocker, receiver and college graduate.
“He is just an awesome, awesome young man,” Scott said. “I firmly believe he’s going to play 10 years in the NFL if he can stay healthy.”
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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