CLEMSON — Travis Etienne’s Heisman Trophy campaign started with the back of his orange Nike cleats almost touching the end zone on the wrong side of the field.
All was right several seconds and 90 yards later as Etienne’s longest college touchdown run was the highlight of No. 1 Clemson’s 52-14 victory over Georgia Tech last week.
The junior from Jennings, La., finished with 205 yards rushing and three touchdowns on only 12 carries.
Not bad for openers.
Though probably not enough to supplant teammate Trevor Lawrence as the Heisman Trophy favorite among Clemson’s talented group of skill-position stars. It’s just too hard to forget Lawrence’s role in those College Football Playoff routs of Notre Dame and Alabama on the way to a national championship.
Real Heisman significance starts Saturday when Texas A&M rolls into Death Valley.
Way too early for authentic Heisman hype, no doubt. All 12 or 13 games matter.
But in early December, this game will stick out for Heisman voters just as College Football Playoff committee members will use it when comparing Clemson with Alabama, Georgia or another SEC team.
Consider that Texas A&M was No. 9 in analyst Phil Steele’s preseason Power Poll. The only other team on Clemson’s schedule in the top 30 was South Carolina, off to an ugly 0-1 start.
Fare well against the Aggies and the world will seriously note and long remember.
Two players from the same team finishing in the top five in Heisman Trophy voting is rare. But recent examples include Texas Tech’s Graham Harrell (fourth) and Michael Crabtree (fifth) in 2008 and Southern Cal’s Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush in 2004 (Leinart first and Bush fifth) and 2005 (Bush first and Leinart third).
Etienne quietly was the ACC Offensive Player of the Year in 2018.
He looks better this year.
“Strides and strides every year,” Clemson redshirt junior linebacker James Skalski said Monday. “He’s definitely grown. In pass protection, too, he’s gotten a lot better.”
Lawrence got off to a so-so start with a mere 168 yards passing with one touchdown and two interceptions against Georgia Tech.
The second one was the sophomore from Cartersville, Ga., throwing one up for grabs on the last play of the first half.
The first one was a basic mistake.
“Trevor got fooled a little bit,” offensive co-coordinator Jeff Scott said Monday. “To be honest, the corner gambled and it paid off. That’s something that Trevor will learn from.”
Included in the Saturday intrigue: Texas A&M is the first program — and Mike Elko the second defensive coordinator — to see Lawrence a second time around. He went 5 of 9 for 93 yards and a touchdown pass while subbing for Kelly Bryant during Clemson’s 28-26 victory at College Station last season.
Ah, but the Aggies didn’t get a good look at Clemson’s best receiver. Justyn Ross as a freshman played just one snap against Texas A&M and wound up leading the 2018 Tigers with 1,000 receiving yards (46 catches).
Texas A&M’s rebuilt defense is untested (the Aggies opened with a 41-7 rout of Texas State). But starting cornerbacks Myles Jones (6-4) and Charles Oliver (6-2) are tall, and all six corners on the Aggies’ three-deep depth chart are 6-1 or taller.
“They are physical, they are long, they can really run,” Scott said. “That definitely will be a huge matchup.”
Michel Dukes watch
Coincidentally, Texas A&M’s backfield includes Cordarrian Richardson, a 6-0, 240-pound sophomore who transferred from Central Florida. The Clemson recruiting machine went hard after Etienne only after losing the battle for Richardson, who gained 12 yards on two carries last week against Texas State.
Almost everything breaks right for the Tigers on the recruiting trail these days. Freshman running back Michel Dukes, a late signee from Charleston’s First Baptist High School, looked good last week against Georgia Tech: 29 yards on seven carries.
“Did you see that cut on Dukes’ 13-yard run?” someone asked Tony Elliott, Clemson’s offensive co-coordinator and running backs coach.
“Did you see the way he picked up the blitz on Chase Brice’s touchdown pass?” Elliott answered.
Etienne and Lawrence for Heisman in 2019.
Michel Dukes for Heisman in 2021.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.