Why Travis Etienne Deserved to Be a Heisman Finalist

Zach Lentz

“If there’s a running back award and Travis Etienne isn’t in the finals of it, I mean, what a joke,” head coach Dabo 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 13 games? Let us count the ways.

Presently, Etienne has rushed 182 times for 1,500 yards with 17 rushing touchdowns.

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 set the record from us at PFF with the highest percentage of missed tackles forced per carry by breaking a tackle on 46% of his attempts in 2019,” Pro Football Focus' Cam Mellor said after the site named Etienne the nation's top running back. “He totaled 84 missed tackles forced on just 181 carries, ranking first among running backs in total missed tackles forced on the ground but just 45th in total attempts this season. He churned out a first down or a touchdown on his carries 37% of the time while he broke off first contact just the same, earning 973 of his 1,492 total rushing yards after contact.”

Etienne is currently second on the all-time list for rushing yards in Clemson football history, just behind Raymond Priester (3,966 yards). Etienne (3,924 yards) is just 43 yards away from breaking the program record.

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.

Meanwhile, Etienne had received only 39 second-half carries heading into the ACC Championship , 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.