GAINESVILLE — The moment Trevor Etienne felt like he clicked with the Florida Gators wasn’t the juke for his first career touchdown against Kentucky. Or the go-ahead score against USF. Or the way he outran the Gamecocks on his 85-yard rush.
It was his seemingly forgettable four-carry, 9-yard performance in a loss to Vanderbilt. Why? Because it was his best outing as a pass blocker.
“If I can just keep doing this, the running will come with it,” Etienne said after a recent spring practice. “And that’s kind of like when I got comfortable with the game.”
As the Gators search for signs of optimism after last year’s 6-7 disappointment, Etienne’s last line is as encouraging as any. If he can be one of the SEC’s top backs as an uneasy freshman, how impressive can he be with a full year of comfort?
“Honestly, man, I just tried not to mess him up last year, right? Not try to put too much on his plate …” running backs coach Jabbar Juluke said. “So, now, the game’s slowing down. He’s understanding it better, so we expect even bigger things from him.”
Though the success or failure of coach Billy Napier’s second season won’t hinge on Etienne alone, the Louisiana native will have an outsized role in whether UF turns things around or plunges toward a third consecutive losing season.
Napier’s offenses are much more run than Fun ‘n’ Gun. In five years as a head coach (four at Louisiana, one at UF), his teams have never ranked higher than 62nd in passing yards per game or 83rd in attempts. Perhaps a change of scenery helps Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz develop into a dynamic downfield passer and boost a receiving corps that was unimpressive last season. But the more likely scenario is that UF asks Mertz to manage games while leaning on Etienne, Montrell Johnson and a big, rebuilt offensive line.
If that blueprint is going to work well enough for Florida to hang with Tennessee and Georgia in the SEC East, Etienne will need to take a major step forward as a sophomore.
The same way his older brother did.
As a freshman at Clemson, Travis Etienne ran for 766 yards — 47 more than Trevor did last fall. Travis doubled that number to 1,658 in Year 2 and eventually became the ACC’s all-time leader in career rushing yards and touchdowns.
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It’s unfair to expect the younger Etienne to match his brother, a 2021 first-round pick by the Jaguars. But Etienne himself doesn’t run away from the comparison.
“Looking up to him, I wanted to do everything he’s done, just follow in his footsteps,” Etienne said. “Like, wherever he went, I wanted to go. So just watching him, I thank him for doing the right thing, because I feel that’s like why I’m here today, from just following in his footsteps.”
The older brother has provided plenty of coaching, too. Travis had clips ready after games to critique his younger brother’s details. When Trevor returned from a broken leg in high school, Travis hounded him for not running hard enough.
That never seemed to be a problem last season, as Etienne flashed his way to 6.1 yards per carry (eighth nationally among freshman running backs and ninth among all SEC players). Instead, Etienne had other things to improve — like terminology, communication with the offensive line and pass protection, which he never needed to worry about on a high school team that used a run-heavy veer offense.
“Once I figure out all those things, I feel like I’ll be better at it,” Etienne said.
Which means the worst statistical game of his young career might end up being one of the most important.
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