CLEMSON — A matter of days remained until Feb. 1’s National Signing Day, and still, Travis Etienne had not gone public with a decision. He didn’t have one.
Time was winding down. The recruiting cycle was coming to an end. While other recruits had long announced where they intended to commit to play college football, Etienne was at home. Struggling.
Clemson’s newest running back had spent his childhood in Jennings, La., only about two hours away from perennial power LSU, which wanted his services. Etienne was a big fan. It made sense to pick the SEC Tigers. They were close to home, they had produced one of his favorite players ever in Leonard Fournette and he would be alongside Heisman hopeful Derrius Guice — a dream for any young running back looking to develop.
But Clemson entered the mix late.
Three days after the Tigers won the national championship in January, they extended an offer to the sparkplug running back. Twelve days before he had to ink his name somewhere with some team on Signing Day, he visited campus.
Then his mother sat him down. She had some words for her struggling son.
“Don’t make a decision based on what you feel like is right for us,” she told Etienne, sensing he might feel obligated to pick LSU because of its proximity to home. “We will come see you wherever you play.”
Six days later he chose Clemson.
In every sense, it has been one of the best pickups Clemson got in the 2017 class as Etienne arrived on campus in June then immediately floored his teammates and coaches with his raw, uncanny speed.
But what those on the outside don’t know, is just how close his ultimate decision was and just how much backlash he got for from LSU’s fanbase for it. Especially when he publicly dubbed Clemson “The real Death Valley.”
“It was very close. Closer than you can imagine,” Etienne said. “My phone blew up for like three days straight. People saying all types of things, calling me all kinds of names and everything like that, but I couldn’t let it get to me because it was my decision at the end of the day. They’re not going to be on the field or in the classroom for you. So it’s my decision. And I’m happy with the decision I made.”
By all accounts, Etienne has settled into Clemson flawlessly, both from an adjustment standpoint and a football perspective.
For weeks in fall camp, head coach Dabo Swinney and co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Tony Elliott raved about Etienne’s talent, both of them so eager to share with the world what they saw in practice.
Slowly but surely, Etienne is proving them right. Despite coaches feeling he was not ready to play in a game as close as one like Auburn’s, Elliott and Swinney made a conscious decision they had to play him against Louisville as to not waste his talent and in an effort to get him more experience. Saturday against the Cardinals, despite the play call for Etienne to take a handoff from Zerrick Cooper and run it up the middle, the freshman read the defense, skirted his way to the outside, stiff armed a defender, escaped multiple tackles and bolted for the end zone on a blistering 81-yard touchdown.
“I’m glad he broke that tackle," Elliott said, "because that was one of those situations where he came on the bus he was like, ‘Coach, I know you’re going to get on me, I was supposed to be inside.’”
As Clemson turns its attention toward Boston College this week, Etienne knows he is not in the mix for a starting running back role because of his inexperience and because of the pass protection issues he needs to clean up. But coaches want to use his explosive speed, and decided this week, to put him on kick return duties with Tavien Feaster. Never at Clemson has Elliott seen someone break as many long runs in fall camp as Etienne, who reminds the running backs coach of a mix between Wayne Gallman and Berkeley High School graduate Andre Ellington.
As for his decision to choose Clemson, Etienne said he was thankful his mother encouraged him to do what he wanted that day. He FaceTimes his family every day and his parents kept good on their promise. They haven’t missed a game yet. When he thinks about it, he wonders if all along his mom didn’t want him at LSU anyway.
“When I was home, she did everything for me. Washed my clothes, I didn’t do anything. I was kind of like — spoiled. She spoiled all of us and that was kind of hindering my ability to grow as a man,” Etienne said. “She wanted to know that I’ll be able to take care of myself after she’s gone or if something happens. And when I chose to go to Clemson, I think she was really excited to see what she taught me transfer over.”