CLEMSON — January came and as recruits poured in, Clemson coaches had no idea what might happen with Travis Etienne.
He had been recruited late. He had grown up a forever LSU fan.They felt like they had a made a favorable impression on his official visit and certainly a national championship did not hurt their cause.
But still, they did not know. Where exactly the Louisiana native was in his own head remained a bit of a mystery.
“We were in the dark,” Clemson co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott said. “We kind of felt 60-40 Clemson, but any time you’ve got a young man out of state, especially where they play great football like Louisiana, we knew it was going to be a difficult decision — going to be really close.”
It was really close. To this day, Etienne said after Clemson’s 31-14 victory over Florida State on Saturday night, the Tigers’ freshman running back still deals with Internet comments from upset fans that he spurned LSU.
But also with each passing day, he is more and more convinced he made the right decision, and Saturday night was no exception. Etienne, 18, scored two touchdowns and finished with 97 yards rushing in helping Clemson punch its ticket to the ACC Championship — his first championship game considering he never made one in high school.
Life is different.
“It’s definitely changed since the first game. Now, I’ll be walking on campus and people will be telling me good job and stuff like that,” Etienne said, sounding more perplexed than arrogant. “And after the games, it’s just like they create a circus around me and it’s really hard to get out. I can’t sign every autograph but I try to get as many as I can. It has really changed since the first game.”
With Clemson only leading Florida State by three points in the fourth quarter Saturday night with still about nine minutes to play, the statement Clemson coaches made by inserting Etienne into the mix was that he is one they trust come crunch time. They plan to continue to work him into the offense and it seems at least possible that he might be the best option over Tavien Feaster, Adam Choice and C.J. Fuller.
Dabo Swinney said Etienne runs with the violence that former running back Wayne Gallman had, but added “he’s faster,” then touched on a sense of urgency about Etienne that comes so effortlessly.
When quarterback Kelly Bryant first met Etienne, he said his initial impression was a bit more humorous.
“This man’s a clown,” he joked. “He’s a good guy. It’s been good to see him grow over the course of the season. Coming in, the first thing, he’s always smiling and to this day, he’s always smiling. He’s a young guy still learning, but to see his growth has been good to see.”
Moving forward, the Tigers will need Etienne and his explosiveness both on special teams and in the backfield. Asked if Etienne might be ready to contend for a starting spot, co-offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott indicated it is possible. Saturday certainly helped his initiative.
“I think that we’ll evaluate that. The positive thing is, I’ve got four guys like I’ve always said, that could be a starter and to be honest with you, I don’t coach them as one being a starter and the others being backups. I try to prepare them all to be ready for their opportunity," Elliott said. "But he continues to produce and definitely when that time comes, he’ll definitely be in the conversation for that spot.”