How Clemson’s Travis Etienne just keeps getting better

CLEMSON, S.C. — It was early in the second quarter of what ultimately proved to be an easy win over Duke, and Clemson star tailback Travis Etienne was mad. He was on the sideline, yelling at no one in particular, then found a seat on the bench with a towel draped over his head. This was big news because, throughout his 17 months on campus, few had seen Etienne unhappy, and an outburst of any sort for perhaps Clemson’s most understated star was unheard of.

Etienne will talk about his team, which he loves, and his mama, whom he loves even more, but aside from that, it’s tough to get much out of the kid other than a bright smile that, for most of his time at Clemson, was framed with a set of braces with bright orange bands. But he wasn’t smiling here. He was furious.

Donnetta Etienne said there’s a rule in her family. If her kids did their chores and kept up their grades, they could have anything they wanted. That, she said, is why Travis is always so happy. He’s smart and dedicated and so, in turn, he’s always had whatever his heart desired.

Still, she might’ve been the one person in Clemson Memorial Stadium who’d seen this scene before. Back when Etienne was a legend in the making at Jennings High in small-town Louisiana, he wore his emotions all over his face, and so after a tough play or a bad loss, he’d keep his helmet on. He didn’t want anyone to see the hurt.

But Donnetta knew, just as she did during the game against Duke, when her boy had retreated to his personal safe place, on a bench, beneath a towel.

“He had to sit down and have a talk with himself,” she said.

For much of the past year, Etienne has been having these little talks with himself, little motivational speeches to push harder, to get better. As a freshman, he was one of the most explosive runners in the country, but he wore down under the rigors of a long season, and he vowed to get stronger. Through spring, he burnished his reputation as a home run hitter in the backfield, but he was consumed instead with getting better at pass blocking, where he woefully underperformed the year before. This season, Etienne has blossomed into an All-American, running for 1,463 yards and setting a school record with 21 rushing touchdowns, but on that Saturday in November, he was furious about a few bad runs.

And that, Clemson running backs coach Tony Elliott said, represented some real progress.

Etienne was a prodigy from the first time he held a football. Donnetta remembers going to his pee wee games and watching him break off one long run after another — five or six a game, minimum, she said — and thinking he had a real gift.

In high school, Etienne became one of the most productive runners in state history. Travis is the third of four kids, and Donnetta said she prayed he’d land a football scholarship. One kid they didn’t have to pay tuition for would mean a lot. In the end, Etienne had 34 scholarship offers in hand before he finally selected Clemson.

He arrived on campus last summer, and before the first practice of his college career was over, teammates were already buzzing about his potential. The first-step quickness, the sudden burst of speed, the open-field vision — he was like a ghost, there and then gone. In his first game, he had a 54-yard run. In his second, he had an 81-yard touchdown. In his third, he rushed for 113 yards and 2 touchdowns, including a 50-yarder.

It’s not as though it all came easily, per se. But it certainly came naturally. And that’s where Elliott found a problem.

“I don’t think he understands how much talent he has,” Elliott said.

Etienne was just a happy kid who happened to be a magician with a football in his hands, and Elliott wasn’t quite sure how to grab the attention of his freshman and make him understand that, hey, this is supposed to be hard.

And so Elliott began to “push some buttons.” Etienne was smart and worked hard and he cared. “He wants to be great,” Elliott said. He just didn’t quite know what that meant, and Elliott was determined to dig deeper, to find out how much untapped potential was really there.

There’s a routine for the Etienne family on every game day. Everyone gathers around Donnetta’s phone — Mom, Dad, two older sisters and Travis’ younger brother, Trevor — to offer good-luck wishes via FaceTime.

Then, during the action, they’re focused on every play, a family of athletes analyzing every run lane or pass block. Trevor will holler at refs or the opposition or, sometimes, at Travis, if the need arises. And then when it’s all over, when they meet outside the stadium and share a few hugs, the critique begins.

“We’re the biggest fans and the worst critics,” Donnetta said. “We tell them at home so nobody has to tell them on the street.”

By the end of Travis’ freshman season, those postgame talks had more substance than ever. Truth is, he’d hit a wall. The season was long, and his body wasn’t ready for it. The demands on his time, the pressure to produce, it was stressful, and he wasn’t sure how to process it all. Now, he admits he ran out of gas, but as Clemson was preparing for its playoff run last December, Etienne was simply holding on for dear life, hoping the thing that had always come so easily wouldn’t swallow him whole.

Then came the Sugar Bowl, where Clemson’s championship dreams were smothered by a horde of Alabama defenders, and Etienne had just four carries for 22 yards in what was supposed to be a triumphant homecoming. This time, there was no critique. He wasn’t wearing the helmet, and Donnetta could see every ounce of pain her boy suffered, so this game ended with a pep talk instead.

“We told him he was our hero no matter what,” Donnetta said. “We told him that, a year ago, he’d been watching this game in our living room. How cool is that?”

The whole family repeated the same things. This was a big moment for Travis, sure, but it wasn’t his time yet. He was still developing his body, his skills, his place in the big picture. But here he was, still playing on this stage.

That meant everything to Travis, but it wasn’t enough to soothe the pain. So after a few days, he called his mama with a plan. The playoff would be back in New Orleans in 2019. He was going to be there, and he was going to be ready for it.

“I’m going to redeem myself,” he told her.

Etienne likes to watch other running backs and pick apart their games. It’s a habit now, and he finds it hard to enjoy an NFL game as just a fan. There are lessons there.

He watches Leonard Fournette, hoping to run more physically.

He watches Ezekiel Elliott, hoping to build that same fearlessness.

He watches Le’Veon Bell, hoping to understand the patience to wait for just the right moment to hit the hole.

In the year since his Sugar Bowl struggles, Etienne has learned to appreciate all the little things.

“My mindset is just knowing what to expect,” Etienne said, “having the mental capacity to take everything in.”

It started soon after last year’s Sugar Bowl loss. Etienne had never been through an offseason conditioning program. In high school, he went right from football to basketball, maybe lifting a few weights in the summer, then back onto the field. Now, he was lifting meaningfully for the first time, working to add mass and learning how to retain it after practices began wearing his body down. Pass protection became a priority. He wanted to understand defenses better, not just hitting a hole when it opened, but to understand where those holes would be before the ball was in his hands.

Elliott was thrilled by Etienne’s progress, but he keeps moving the bar a little higher. Those late-season struggles last year gave Elliott needed credibility in the eyes of his prodigy, and so he pushes more and more and never seems to find a limit to Etienne’s potential.

“Each week, I have to find something a little different to challenge him on,” Elliott said. “He’s an awesome young man. He wants to be great. But he hasn’t been to the future yet. So we tell them to trust that process.”

The results so far have been eye-popping. Etienne has 21 runs of 20 yards or more — about one for every eight carries. He’s fifth nationally in rushing yards despite having 12 or fewer carries in nine games this season, and he gleefully suggests his mates in the backfield have boosted his performance. He has nine more touchdowns than runs that failed to gain yardage.

“A home run threat on every touch,” NC State coach Dave Doeren said of Etienne.

“We don’t play guys with that combination of power and speed, and he has vision to go with it,” Duke defensive coordinator Matt Guerrieri said.

“As good a back as we’ve faced in my five years here,” Wake Forest coach Dave Clawson said.

Quite simply, he’s got a good case as the nation’s best running back, and he’s just scratching the surface of what he might one day become.

“Whatever Travis is hungry for, he’ll go get it,” fellow tailback Adam Choice said. “His potential is untapped, but he just has it. He’s blessed. He’s special.”

Back to that November Saturday against Duke when Etienne finally vented his frustrations on the sideline. Elliott had been in the booth, hadn’t seen any of it. He just heard about it afterward, heard Etienne had been frustrated by his lack of early production, heard his prodigy was unwilling to tolerate mediocrity, even for just a series or two.

This, Elliott said, was music to his ears.

“I don’t get to see that much out of Travis,” he said. “I’m trying to push those buttons to get him to be consistent and perform at the highest level possible every week. I’m trying to push him to be the best version of himself. He’s still young. But to see he cares, that’s what I’m looking for.”

There’s still that return trip to the Sugar Bowl in 2019, where Etienne hopes to put on a real show for his hometown fans. But there’s also this year’s playoff, a Dec. 29 date with Notre Dame in the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (4 p.m. ET, ESPN), a showcase of how far Etienne has come.

If last year was an opening act for the kid who didn’t know where each step might take him, this Clemson playoff run has Etienne at center stage.

When the Tigers were down to their third-string QB and in need of a miracle against Syracuse, Etienne ran roughshod over the Orange defense.

Those first-half frustrations against Duke gave way to a stellar second half in which Etienne carried 4 times for 77 yards and 2 touchdowns.

And when the carries piled up and Etienne’s body might’ve worn down, he has been at his best, running for 306 yards and four touchdowns in Clemson’s final two games.

That’s all part of what Elliott has been selling his tailback, the same thing Donnetta has always told her son. Put in the effort, and you can have anything you want.

“This year, I’ll be at my best,” Etienne said. “I’ll be better in the playoff.”

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