CLEMSON, S.C. – There he went, moving through the sea of orange, a police officer pushing him toward the Clemson locker room as he fended off mobbing fans. Here he is a celebrity. He politely avoids autograph-seekers and doesn’t slow for selfies, cutting a path through field-storming Tigers fans. He’s moving among the crowd at a rapid pace, weaving and bobbing, a security officer behind him with a hand each on his shoulder. You can never be too careful. His health is the utmost of importance. After all, this is the star of Clemson’s football team, a Heisman Trophy candidate, maybe a favorite after this night.
He is Travis Etienne.
Oh, you thought we were referring to the tall drink of sunshine, this squad’s hotshot quarterback, Trevor Lawrence? No, he was already in the locker room, having been whisked through the crowd by four—four—police officers. How fitting. There is another Heisman contender on this team, even if everyone’s forgotten about him, even if he has too few bodyguards. He reminded us all Thursday night in the top-ranked Tigers’ 52-14 dismantling of Georgia Tech. Etienne stole this show, an explosive debut in a game that served as the ACC Network’s kickoff. The junior set career-highs for longest run (90 yards) and yards rushing (205). He scored three touchdowns, averaged more than 17 yards a carry and accomplished a first in Clemson history: no player has run for more than 200 yards on so few carries (12). He did this all in 2.5 quarters. “He’s taking the next step,” says Jeff Scott, Clemson’s co-offensive coordinator. “Explosive runner.”
Last time we saw Etienne, he was carving up Alabama’s defense for 6.1 yards a carry and two scores. That night, Clemson thrashed what was supposed to be college football’s greatest team. Georgia Tech is no Alabama—we know. The Yellow Jackets are rebuilding under a first-year coach and looked an awful lot like a program that has for the last decade abandoned the forward pass (things haven’t gotten much better, GT was 7-for-18 passing). But this night showed us all something: The Tigers can clobber a conference opponent without heroics from Lawrence. The QB seemed a bit rusty through the air tossing two picks and missing on 10 of his 23 attempts. Scott says the Tigers had prepared for GT to play man-to-man but the Yellow Jackets threw a surprising zone at them. Anyway, good luck to all of those in the ACC, knowing now that Lawrence can have a meh game and the Tigers can still roll by 38. Goes to show, Clemson doesn’t have one star. It doesn’t need 300-yard passing days from Lawrence or one-handed catches from members of the Wide Receiver U, as they call themselves. Etienne is on this team, too, and maybe you should get to know him.
He is shy, quiet and Clemson plucked him from south Louisiana, the backyard of LSU. He enjoys the good stuff in life—turkey necks, red beans, navy beans and, of course, boudin. He’s also a big fan of Popeyes chicken, the fast-food chain that originated in south Louisiana. Popeyes has recently caused a stir with a new chicken sandwich that many claim is better than that of Chick-fil-A. This has become a sweeping social media sensation over the last few weeks, and Etienne, yes, has heard about it but, no, he has not tried the sandwich. It was hard to resist. The sandwich became a thing while he was back home this summer, but he, unlike most of us, has self-discipline. “My friends all told me about it, but I told myself I wouldn’t eat Popeyes because I had to come back to fall camp,” he says. “That would ruin everything we’d done all summer. I can’t just go one time.”
No one can, Travis. No one can. But on to football stuff. Overshadowed last season on a team with a true freshman giant as a quarterback and three future first-round draft picks, Etienne slipped into the shadows. Despite winning ACC Player of the Year, the spotlight always found others. Now it’s on him, and he’s not quite sure how to handle it. Is he more comfortable in front of us media people, the camera lights and the rolling records? “I am more comfortable,” he smiles back. “It doesn’t mean I enjoy it more.” Etienne is hard on himself. After one of the best rushing performances in the history of Clemson football, he believes it could have been much better. For starters, he fumbled. “I feel like I really had a bad game,” he says. In the fourth quarter, he was told on the sideline that he barreled through the 200-yard mark. “Dang,” he responded. “It didn’t even feel like that.” Try telling that to the Yellow Jackets. Even Etienne’s own players couldn’t stop him. On his 90-yard touchdown run, he ran into the (large) backside of 330-pound left tackle Jackson Carman within the first five yards of the line of scrimmage. It didn’t matter. He bounced off of his behind and streaked down the sideline for the other 85 yards. “It worked out for the better,” Etienne smiled.
Even after Etienne’s record-setting performance, the buzz here was squarely on his quarterback, on one specific play Lawrence made—a tackle. He saved his own pick-six by chasing down the interceptor, Tre Swilling, and knocking him out of bounds two yards shy of the goal line. It was a seven-point play. Clemson’s defense—the one that lost three first-rounders on the front—stopped Georgia Tech on four downs. Lawrence’s tackle was all the talk, even in the postgame locker room scene, where coach Dabo Swinney spent time using it as a lesson for everyone: Don’t give up on any play. “That’s what a champion does,” defensive coordinator Brent Venables says. “The effort to get him out of bounds. That’s a winner there. Easily could have pulled up on the play.” No chance that would happen, says Lawrence. Just before he released the pass, he knew it was a goner, and he immediately reversed field to chase Swilling. “I was going to hit him,” he says before a pause, “I should have tried to strip it!” The play was good enough to elicit this from Scott: “His best play happened on his worst play. That was one of the highlights.”
The highlights! Many of those on this night belonged to that guy moving through the orange sea, the one security officer shoving him from behind. Yes, Etienne is here, too. Sometimes, Swinney has to remind Etienne that Etienne is here and is good and wins awards. Just recently, the coach joked with his running back about that ACC Player of the Year honor. “Oh yeah,” Etienne replied, “that was me!”