Sugar Bowl Football

Clemson running back Travis Etienne was 185 pounds this time last year. Now he is 204. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

CLEMSON — Travis Etienne can be a little shy, his endearing smile and gentle presence lighting up a group when he speaks.

But the Clemson sophomore running back also can be unquestionably blunt at times. Particularly when it comes to his own self-evaluation. And, by now, he knows exactly what you are thinking.

"I mean — last year was a total train wreck (with my pass protection)," he said smiling. "It was just horrible for me not knowing what to do play-wise."

This year, he said, will be different — in large part thanks to a two-part plan.

Step 1 for Etienne was to start mastering Clemson's playbook more thoroughly, something that is still an ongoing process.

But Step 2 was to gain weight. Get stronger.

Etienne now can proudly say he has gone from 185 pounds this time last year to a healthy, more muscular 204 right now — and he's ready to share his secret beyond just putting in the work in the weight room.

Really, his trick is very simple.

"Drinking my protein shakes," he said. "When I first got here, I really didn't drink the protein shakes and didn't really take my weight room seriously.

"I finally brought (Clemson's nutritionists) closer to saying I'm 'All In.' I just started drinking my shakes, and that really helped me."

Perhaps it was a taste thing, maybe it was something Etienne just didn't see the value in or in all likelihood, it's entirely possible he simply didn't understand as a freshman just how transformative one protein shake a day after a workout could be for his body. It is not all that uncommon, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said, for underclassmen to enter his program not fully informed about the value of nutrition or how to appropriately fuel their bodies.

That's why then, over the summer, Clemson's Director of Football Performance Nutrition Paul Harrington, sat down with Etienne and explained to him what types of tactics he was going to implement to help the explosive running back gain the desired weight he wanted.

From a caloric standpoint, Etienne said the only major change was adding in those shakes. He drank one a day after every workout, then continued to eat normally at every other meal. But he had to be consistent with it — agreeing to get on board with the liquid gamechanger every single day. And for that, Swinney praised his running back.

"We track everything. Tony (Elliott) is very accountable to those guys as far as saying, 'Here's where you are and this is the plan that you've got to commit to to get to where you need to be.' It's fun to see," Swinney said. "I think we've all at some point in our lives, you've kind of been there where you're motivated because you feel good, because you're kind of doing something right whether you've lost weight or you've gotten into shape or whatever. That's kind of where he is."

Etienne never really struggled from a confidence standpoint in 2017, particularly given that he broke C.J. Spiller's Clemson record for rushing touchdowns by a freshman without ever starting a game and without even playing against Auburn. But what the added protein has done for him is it has made him even more fearless when he's breaking off tackles or stiff-arming defenders, and he simultaneously has become a more difficult body to block when it comes to pass protection.

Tre Lamar, a Clemson junior linebacker, said the Clemson defense already can feel the difference when they try to wrap around Etienne, which only adds to the allure of this phenom who took the country by storm a season ago for how explosive he was.

Should the pass protection pieces come together, he could be one of the nation’s most lethal backs.

“He’s a little thicker,” Lamar grinned. “He obviously has got such strong legs, he’s got great leg drive, and so now, obviously the size just further enhances that.”

He’ll never miss a shake again.

Will Lyn-J Dixon redshirt?

Swinney was asked Tuesday afternoon if he envisioned a scenario in which true freshman running back Lyn-J Dixon redshirts this year with three proven running backs all ahead of him. Swinney indicated the Tigers' coaching staff isn't quite yet sure what to do about Dixon, but so far, he hasn't slowed down with his first impression.

"I think he’s well positioned right now based on what I’ve seen to probably not redshirt. It’s hard, you need four backs," Swinney said. "We'll go through and if it looks like he’s not getting the amount of playing time or opportunity, then maybe midseason or something you make a decision but right now, he’s a guy that probably could help us in situations but also on special teams. So we’ll see."

Best version of Mark Fields

Aside from the one day of fall camp he got too aggressive and got into a fight on Dabo Swinney's practice field, Mark Fields has impressed the Clemson coach in his final fall camp of his Clemson career at the cornerback position.

Fields, a veteran who is part of the Clemson defense's most thin group when it comes to depth, has taken it upon himself to mature this offseason and help lead the cornerback unit when it needs him the most. As a junior, he played in eight games and started four — a load that will increase as a senior beginning two weeks from now.

"This is the best version of Mark Fields we’ve had since he’s been here, in every area. He’s been focused. He’s been compliant ... I just think he’s grown up, he’s matured, he’s healthy, he feels good," Swinney said.

"I want to see him finish more plays on the ball in the air and turn a few of those PBUs into some interceptions, but I love his physicality right now and just his demeanor. He’s been locked in every day at practice, and hopefully that’ll continue."

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.