How Should Defenses Stop Etienne? Not Even Venables Can Answer That

Brad Senkiw

Brent Venables knows a little something about defending good running backs. 

After all, his rushing defense has ranked in the top 25 every season since 2014. People don't run the ball on Clemson very often, and the defensive coordinator of the No. 1 Tigers has faced some incredible rushers, like Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, James Connor, J.K Dobbins and Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

Plus, Venables is an absolute tactician. He's been called the "Mad Scientist." Not only does he put together creative game plans that regularly take teams' strengths away, but he also retools his defense every season to take advantage of what his personnel does well. 

Venables is arguably the best in the game at what he does, although it's not really all that arguable when you look at his track record and consistency of putting Clemson among the top defenses in college football year after year. 

But there's one player he sees every day in practice who seems to stump him. When asked what advice he'd give to fellow defensive coordinators out there looking to contain Clemson all-time leading rusher Travis Etienne, the man with all the answers had none. 

"I don't know what to say other than, you know, good luck," Venables said. "It's hard."

That might not be the most analytical breakdown of arguably college football's best running back this year, but Venables isn't wrong. You don't need average luck or decent luck. You have to have good luck and hope a rusher averaging over 7 yards per carry in his illustrious career doesn't break too many big ones on you. 

"Travis has really come into his own, and there's a lot of other great weapons around him as well. You can't just lock in on him. (Clemson offensive coordinator) Tony (Elliott) does a great job of utilizing everybody," Venables said. "But (Etienne), he's great with the ball in his hands, and the more times he touches it, the better opportunity there is to create explosive plays, whether that's in the kicking game or as a returner or certainly out of the backfield or handling the rock." 

Etienne's development at Clemson has been nothing short of impressive. When he got to Tiger Town, he immediately showed off his explosiveness as a runner in 2017, but Etienne couldn't pass protect and he couldn't catch out of the backfield. 

It was a little perplexing that such a talented back could run so hard but not do the other things well. It was because he had never done them. Coming out of Jennings, La., Etienne played in a Wing-T offense that rarely threw the ball. 

So Etienne went to work, improving his hands and learning the fundamentals and strategies of picking up pass-rushers in the backfield. He's now a complete back with little to no answers on how to stop him. 

Teams want to stack the box against Clemson and make Trevor Lawrence beat them with his less experienced receivers on the outside. Wake Forest and Virginia held Etienne well below his career average per carry, but he averaged 15.7 and 22.8 yards per reception, respectively, in those two games. 

He followed that up with 73 receiving yards against Miami, and his ability to turn short catches into long runs for third-down conversions has been one of the main stories for Clemson's offense this season. 

Etienne, who's produced 392 rushing yards and 245 receiving yards with five total touchdowns, looks like the best player on the field when he's out there. He's set to break more and more records, beginning noon Saturday at Georgia Tech, as the season goes along. 

So what's a defensive coordinator to do? Right now, no one knows, not even defensive mind who's been going against him for four years. 

"I just would just say good luck," Venables reiterated. "He's tough."

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