NFL Comparison: A more-well-rounded Ronald Jones
Just in case there weren’t enough explosive plays generated by quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the passing game of the Tigers, Clemson’s opponents also had to deal with the threat of running back Travis Etienne ripping off massive chunks of yardage on his own, anytime he touched the football.
While he fits in the mode of your classic speed-based “slasher” running back, Etienne shows a welcome level of patience in watching the blocks in front of him develop and waiting patiently until that proper moment to attack the hole. That already sets him apart (in a good way) from so many other ‘speed merchant’ running backs who try to explode instantly after securing the handoff, even before the running lane opens up.
For a guy his size, Etienne’s willingness to run between the tackles, as opposed to trying to bounce everything outside, is another highly enticing part of his game. Despite his lack of bulk, he’ll happily lower his shoulders at the point of attack and burrow through defenders at the first and second levels of the defense. Even without a ton of bulk, Etienne can pick up chunks of yardage because of his strong center of gravity: he’s really good at absorbing hits, maintaining his balance, and accelerating back to top speed.
To that end, that acceleration is one of the most appealing parts of Etienne’s game. There’s such little time between the moment he gets the ball and the moment he hits top speed that it often looks like somebody is using him in a video game and hitting the “turbo” button as soon as the ball is in his hands. What makes that ability even more dangerous to opposing defenses is how Etienne combines it with the aforementioned patience; he’ll wait for that right moment before planting his leg into the ground and exploding forward, allowing him to inflict maximum damage with the run.
The other part of his game that truly helps him stand out from his peers is the way he moves in the open field. Etienne clocked in with a time of 4.4 seconds flat in the 40-yard dash during the Clemson University Pro Day, though it should be noted that such venues tend to result in much more favorable times compared to those taken at a “neutral” location. Nonetheless, he’s clearly plenty fast — and yet, he might actually be a bit more “quick” than truly “fast.” He’s so difficult for defenses to chase or corral when he’s running laterally, especially since he can quickly accelerate right through a defense when changing directions. He could very well be at his best when he’s using that combination of burst, lateral agility, and overall elusiveness to make people miss in the second level of the defense, and onwards.
That’s another reason why, even though he surprised so many by not entering the 2019 NFL Draft, the fact that Etienne returned to Clemson University for his senior season turned out to be an excellent decision in hindsight. He came back for one more year of college football with a specific focus on catching the football and becoming a bigger part of the Tigers’ passing game — a request that he specifically made to his coaches upon his return. Clearly, the latter acquiesced, to the benefit of everyone; Etienne went from 568 receiving yards combined during his first three years, to 588 receiving yards in 2020 alone — the highest total receiving yards for any running back in the nation last year.
The fact that he could now combine his natural abilities as a runner with the fact that he could demonstrably be a significant contributor in the passing game certainly makes his proverbial Draft stock shoot up in value, in the eyes of NFL teams.
What any NFL team that considers picking Etienne will have to ask about is the latter’s potential “use rate.” Simply put, between his overall skill set and a lack of bulk overall (his playing weight was generously listed around 210lbs — but it was probably a bit lower than that), he’s not really built to be a 25-carry “bread and butter”-type back. He’s more of a 1A/1B player, who can come in and present a threat either as a runner or a passer, especially in fast-paced situations (or the two-minute drill).
Even then, his future coaching staff will have to be judicious in what situations they place him in, considering he can also be one of those guys who generates a ton of short gains before ripping off that big one of 40+ yards, and because he isn’t anything to write home about when it comes to pass-blocking. If Etienne is in a rotation, which would probably be ideal for him, he’ll be expected to produce every time he’s on the field. Having those “hot and cold” moments won’t endear him to coaches.
But when you take a step back to look at the big picture, it’s not hard to see Etienne’s potential value in a league where “dual-threat” running backs are increasingly valued at a premium. Nobody is going to confuse the way Etienne runs the ball with the way Derrick Henry does, but look at the value guys like Christian McCaffrey and/or Alvin Kamara present to their team.
It’s not unreasonable to think that Etienne could become a similar type of player — or perhaps someone like a Reggie Bush-type player? — for his future employer. ■