Spring Preview: RB Room Gets Huge Lift With Etienne Return

Morgan Thomas

Editor’s note: @ClemsonSI is running a series of 10 positional breakdowns each day previewing spring football.

He’s likely the upstate’s most loved Louisana native and he is back for one more season. After a surprising decision to return for his senior year, Travis Etienne will lead the Clemson backfield again in 2020.

Etienne’s return leaves no doubt who will fill the starting position, however, there will likely be a high level of competition this year for who will spell him when he comes off the field.

Here’s a spring preview of Clemson’s running backs:

Returning players: Travis Etienne (Sr.), Darien Rencher (R-Sr.), Lyn-J Dixon (Jr.), Chez Mellusi (So.), Michel Dukes (So.)

Newcomers: Demarkcus Bowman (Fr.), Kobe Pryor (Fr.)

Departures: None.

Expectations: Saying that expectations are high for this group of running backs feels like an understatement. A few days after the Tigers put an end on the 2019 season, players began to make their decisions on if they would leave for the NFL or stay for one final year. Travis Etienne was one of those players. After already winning a national championship the year before and being named ACC Player of the Year the past two seasons, Etienne certainly didn’t have anything left to prove to the football world.

For Etienne it wasn’t about proving anything, it was about dreams.

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Travis Etienne

“Speaking of dreams, I have long dreamed of competing at the highest level and getting the chance to compete in the NFL. But I am not done dreaming here at Clemson either, which is why I’m announcing that I’ll be returning for my senior season,” said Etienne in a post on his Twitter account.

As Etienne prepares for his final season, assumptions are that he is returning to further improve his draft stock. In returning, expectations will be that he help the Tigers win the ACC and make another playoff birth but also that he becomes the only player to be named ACC Player of the Year for three consecutive years.

Though he will have to carry most of the expectations on his shoulders, this running back group is not made up of Etienne alone. Junior Lyn-J Dixon will be expected to help the team move the ball more successfully than he did last season. Rising sophomores Chez Mellusi and Michel Dukes now have one year of experience on their resume and will be expected to battle for more playing time in 2020.

While Clemson didn’t have to say goodbye to any running backs this year, they do get to say hello to 5-star commit Demarkcus Bowman and 4-star commit Kobe Pryor. The true freshmen will have a lot on their plates as they are adjusting to college life, college football routines, the playbook, and the blocking schemes. However, in the world of elite college football programs, they will be expected to grow up quickly.

Key position battle: Backup running back. Lyn-J Dixon had the task of spelling for Travis Etienne during the 2019 season. However, he did not see as big of an increase in production or scoring as he did carries. He carried the ball 42 more times than last season but only improved by 88 total rushing yards and 1 touchdown.

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Lyn-J Dixon

The Clemson mindset has long been that everyone has to re-earn their position on the depth chart every year. The backup running back position is one where we could see Dixon battle with Mellusi and Dukes immediately when spring practice starts.

Areas to improve: It’s difficult to pick an area to improve when the Tigers have a handful of explosive and unique running talents. Since Etienne is returning, the focus will likely shift to further developing a No. 2 back to help move the ball more consistently. Someone that makes the defense think about him instead of shifting its focus to the pass. Not saying that Dixon can’t be this for the Tigers. However, at times it seemed that the No. 2 guy was also the guy playing quarterback and that position has its own pressures to deal with.

Impact player: Etienne. While media bias keeps the Heisman Trophy out of reach for the Tigers, there is hope that Etienne can become the first-ever player to be named the ACC Player of the Year for three consecutive years.

Player to step up:

Chez Mellusi

Lyn-J Dixon is a guy that can be explosive to the outside and the Tigers need him to focus on those strengths. While Chez Mellusi will be the player that most needs to fill a somewhat missing role of the bruising between the tackles back.

If you remember back to our article reviewing the Clemson offensive line, the Tiger’s main struggle was short-yardage run success. Success being either a first down or a touchdown. Improving in short-yardage success will help keep the momentum with the offense and the other team’s offense off the field more in 2020. Chez Mellusi’s style of running has him best positioned to make a case to be that guy.