Etienne is Overlooked

CU Athletic Communications

The omission of running back Travis Etienne from the list of finalists for the Doak Walker Award was a topic du jour. Matt Hayes (Bleacher Report) and Matt Hinton (former purveyor of Sunday Morning Quarterback and Dr. Saturday) were among those who expressed astonishment over the snub.

The befuddlement need not be limited to a duo of men named Matt.

The central irony of this spotlight is that it’s written to feature a young man who seeks and craves zero spotlight. Asked by local media Tuesday if being snubbed on the finalist list for the Doak Walker Award bothered him, Etienne said the following:

“No sir. Honestly, it really doesn’t. As a team, we’re where we want to be as a team. We control our destiny as a team. Football is the ultimate team sport, so I can’t get caught up in individual awards when our main focus is to win a national championship at the end of the year,” Etienne said. “As long as I’m helping my team win games, that’s all that matters.”

While Etienne was diplomatic, Head Coach Dabo Swinney was animated. Asked Tuesday about the awards snub, Swinney offered the following:

“If there’s a running back award and Travis Etienne isn’t in the finals of it, I mean, what a joke,” Swinney said. “Really. You just wait and see who gets drafted first and the type of career he’s going to have. It’s unbelievable. Travis is like .2 yards off all-time in the history of college football in yards per carry for a career. He leads the country in yards per carry. He’s got 65 less carries than everybody else who is in the top [six in rushing yardage] up there. Sixty-five. That’s like four games of carries for Travis. Can you imagine what he would do with four more games?”

“This guy is off-the-charts special.”

How special has Etienne’s 2019 season been through 11 games? Let us count the ways.

Presently, Etienne has rushed 153 times for 1,335 yards with 14 rushing touchdowns. A 14-game pace of Etienne’s current statistics (not even accounting for a possible 15th game) would put him around 1,699 yards on 195 carries with just shy of 18 rushing touchdowns.

Here’s a look at how those projected total would compare to the last five running backs to win the Heisman Trophy: Alabama’s Derrick Henry (2015), Alabama’s Mark Ingram (2009), USC’s Reggie Bush (2005, later vacated), Wisconsin’s Ron Dayne (1999) and Texas’ Ricky Williams (1998).

However, Etienne’s trademark in his career has not been the general accrual of statistics; it’s been his explosiveness and efficiency in a fraction of the touches received by premier backs around the country and throughout recent history.

While Etienne’s yardage and touchdown totals put him in the company of the workhorse backs of yesterday, his ability to accumulate them as part of today’s balanced offense at Clemson has made his production even more special. Etienne’s production has been a key part of a larger offensive engine that has Clemson as presently one of only two teams in the country averaging at least 250 yards per game both rushing (260.6) and passing (282.5) this season.

Etienne’s remarkably efficient 2019 season has happened to coincide with noteworthy performances by a trio of extremely talented running backs across the country — Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor — who have helped their teams to a combined 28-5 record this season en route to becoming Doak Walker Award finalists. 

Etienne presently ranks seventh in the country in rushing yards (1,335), but has accrued his yardage despite totaling at least 65 fewer carries than anyone else in the top seven. His 8.73 yards-per-carry average leads the nation and is a full two yards per carry better than any of the six players ahead of him in rushing yardage. He also holds an 8.10 yards-per-carry average for his career, just shy of the NCAA record held by Army’s Glenn Davis (8.26 from 1943-46) among players with 300 career carries.

Under Swinney, Clemson has taken great pride in the number of players it plays per game. Clemson has averaged a school-record 80.1 players per game in 2019, but while that tact builds depth that benefits the program in both the short and long term, it comes at the expense of opportunity for players to rack up statistics in races for national awards. That has left Etienne to do his damage in the first half of most games, as 75.0 percent of his rushing yards and 74.5 percent of his rushing attempts have come in the first half this season.

FIRST-HALF RUSHING YARDS (2019)

  1. J.K. Dobbins (1,084 on 161 carries)
  2. Travis Etienne (1,001 on 114 carries)
  3. Jonathan Taylor (986 on 157 carries)
  4. Chuba Hubbard (963 on 143 carries)
  5. AJ Dillon (819 on 158 carries)

Meanwhile, Etienne has received only 39 second-half carries this season, compared to 142 for Hubbard, 104 for Taylor and 58 for Dobbins. Whittling those down to only fourth-quarter carries, Hubbard accounts for 67, Taylor accounts for 41 and Dobbins accounts for 20, while Etienne has only appeared in three fourth quarters this season with a grand total of four rushing attempts.

But where words and numbers may fail, hopefully some of Etienne’s memorable performances in 2019 speak for themselves.

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