ACC Championship Football

Clemson's Travis Etienne was Clemson's leading rusher without ever starting a game in 2017. His potential for 2018 will be invaluable to the Tigers. File/AP Photo/Bob Leverone

CLEMSON — Mitch Hyatt remembers exactly where he was, what he was doing and the scenario that was unfolding before him when Travis Etienne took his breath away for the first time.

How could he forget?

It was the summer of 2017 and the reigning national-champion Clemson football team was a couple of weeks into its fall camp for a new season with a new team. Hyatt and the Tigers' offense was backed up on the 1-yard line to practice a routine, situational play of getting out of its own end zone in a jam.

In at running back was a young 18-year-old with braces — a quiet, unassuming teenager from Jennings, La., who was Clemson's fourth-stringer at the time. Very few Clemson players had heard of Etienne at that point.

And then ...

"The first play," Hyatt recalls from his left-tackle position, "he takes off and goes for like, a 99-yard touchdown. I was like, 'Man, this guy — this guy is quick.'"

It would not be long until the rest of the country learned that same thing about Etienne, too. Now, a year later, the sophomore running back is at the top of Clemson's depth chart heading into the preseason, poised for another breakout campaign.

A season after he broke C.J. Spiller's Clemson record for rushing touchdowns by a freshman, Etienne enters his sophomore year with more confidence, more awareness of Clemson's playbook and more time to have critiqued his pass protection this offseason — the one area of his game that needs the most work.

Pull all of those three elements together and Clemson's running game, alongside Tavien Feaster and Adam Choice, is in more-than-capable hands. Etienne is a large piece of the puzzle for a team expected to head straight back to the College Football Playoff again in 2018.

"He just runs like every play is the game-winning play in the Super Bowl. He just has that mindset and we love that," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "He just runs with desperation every single play ... he's got that violence to him when he runs."

Indeed.

Etienne first turned heads in 2017 on a grand stage when he broke loose for an 81-yard touchdown in primetime at Louisville on a play in which he was supposed to hit the A-gap but instead busted down the sidelines with strength no one could tackle and speed no one could catch.

"'Coach, I know you’re going to get on me,"' he told running backs coach and co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott on the bus afterward. '"I was supposed to be inside.'"

But at that point, Clemson knew what it had on its hands.

After not being in a position where coaches trusted him enough to play against Auburn in Week 2, Etienne went on to finish his freshman season as Clemson's leading rusher with 766 yards and 13 touchdowns. He averaged 7.2 yards per carry and managed to accomplish all of it without ever starting a single game for the Tigers.

What does that mean for 2018, when his load will pick up and so too will his productivity?

"I just don't want to mess him up as a coach," Elliott said. "He's one of the most talented runners I've had."

Clemson's Top 10 Most Important Players

10. K Greg Huegel

9. CB Trayvon Mullen

8. S/LB Isaiah Simmons

7. DT Christian Wilkins

6. DT Dexter Lawrence

5. WR Hunter Renfrow

4. RB Travis Etienne 

3. Coming Friday 

Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter @gmraynor

Grace is the Post and Courier's Clemson reporter. She graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in journalism.