Clemson all-time great running back Travis Etienne has caught on as receiver

Todd Shanesy
Greenville News
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There was a play early in Clemson running back Travis Etienne’s college career that perfectly summed up his pass-catching.

Or rather his pass-not-catching.

The Tigers were on their way to a 34-10 win at South Carolina in 2017 when Etienne, a freshman already in a key role, totally whiffed on a pass thrown right to him.

“I don’t even think he got his hands up to break a spiral,” Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “It just goes out of bounds and he runs straight to the sideline.”

Etienne, now a senior, is Clemson’s all-time leading rusher and on target to become the ACC’s all-time leading rusher by about midseason. He already holds the league record for career touchdowns. He’s an NFL talent, but there was one part of his repertoire missing.

Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) is congratulated by quarterback Trevor Lawrence after they connected on a passing touchdown Saturday night against Virginia.

In an article before last season, had what was a common analysis: “The Clemson product is not much of a pass-catcher. … He has shown very little as a route runner at Clemson and does not catch the ball particularly well. At this point in his career, Etienne brings essentially nothing to the game as a receiver out of the backfield. Simply put, teams want a guy who can give them both. If Etienne cannot provide any value in the passing game, I highly doubt that NFL teams are going to want to invest a first-round pick in him.”

Through his first two seasons, Etienne had 17 catches for 135 yards. But last season, he had 37 catches for 432 yards with four touchdowns.

More:  Here's why Travis Etienne stayed at Clemson instead of going pro

Last week in the 41-23 win against Virginia, he set a Clemson record for running backs with 114 receiving yards on five catches, including a touchdown. That broke a mark of 108 yards by C.J. Spiller in a 2008 game against Duke. It was only the fourth 100-yard receiving day for running backs in the history of Clemson football. Spiller has the other two as well.

Take that, NFL talent evaluators.

Etienne was certainly aware of what scouts were saying. Maybe that was a factor in his deciding to come back for his senior season, despite the monumental progress as a receiver, to continue working on being a better pass-catcher.

“I think a lot of it was him understanding that if he wants to continue to play for a long time and transition to the NFL, he’s going to need that piece of his game,” Elliott said. "He didn’t really have that much exposure to it coming out of high school (Jennings, Louisiana) just because of the style of offense that they played. He always had the natural ability to catch the ball. He just didn’t have a ton of confidence.

“… His confidence level has really improved because he’s gone out there and worked on the repetition. The biggest thing for him is to continue to work on that aspect without jeopardizing the other pieces of his game because he still has to continue to work as a runner.”

There is no questioning Etienne as a runner. He has rushed for 4,281 yards and 58 touchdowns. He needs only 321 yards to eclipse the ACC’s all-time record set by Ted Brown of N.C. State from 1975 to 1978. In between them are Boston College’s A.J. Dillon (4,382 from 2017-19), North Carolina’s Amos Lawrence (4,391 from 1977-80) and Florida State’s Dalvin Cook (4,464 from 2014-16).

Last week, Etienne went over 5,000 yards from scrimmage. He is at 5,020 yards with 65 touchdowns, having scored at least one in an FBS-record 38 games, headed into Saturday night’s matchup (7:30 p.m., ABC) between No. 1 Clemson and No. 7 Miami at Memorial Stadium.

Clemson's Travis Etienne moves into FBS record book with pair of touchdowns

Etienne’s development as a receiver was not just for personal success in the NFL. Clemson needed it, too.

“We learned from our offseason study,” Elliott said, “that there are going to be some times when we want to get five-man protection and release five out on the routes. The back’s going to be the fifth receiver to see if we can put a little more stress on the defense.”

“It just opened up our options a lot as far as what we can do,” quarterback Trevor Lawrence said. “When you trust a guy coming out of the backfield to catch the ball, it definitely opens up the playbook. … I don’t have any doubt he’s going to catch it when I throw it to him. We worked on that a lot during the summer and the offseason, trying to build that chemistry. It’s definitely paying off.”

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