Travis Etienne isn't your typical first-round running back.
Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer made Etienne's role clear in the days following the team's selection of the record-setting Clemson running back at No. 25 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft. He would play running back, yes, but he would be best defined as a "slash."
A few days into Meyer's first rookie minicamp as the Jaguars' head coach, that is exactly what Etienne is doing. Instead of Etienne taking his reps in the backfield during the toned-down practices, Etienne has taken all of his practice reps as a receiver.
"We actually made the decision rookie camp — the majority, I don’t know if it was 100 percent — all his individual training was at wide receiver," Meyer said following Saturday's rookie minicamp practice.
"That’s the reason we drafted him is the opportunity to be a dual-threat guy and our history as long as we’ve had a guy like that and we saw him as a guy like that in the draft this year. Right now we’re focusing on the fundamentals of wide receiver play, learning the offense from wide receiver. Like I said, worst-case scenario is you have a running back that’s elite with receiver skills and best-case scenario he’s a legitimate dual-threat guy.”
It didn't take long for the Jaguars to make the move to let Etienne function as both a running back and receiver, either.
In fact, according to Etienne, it took about one whole day.
"Coach informed me that the very next day after I got drafted. When I came out here, he brought me into a room, asked me how I felt about it, and I feel great about it," Etienne said.
"I feel like it’s going to help me maximize my opportunity, maximize my skillset, so I feel like Coach knows what he’s doing. He’s doing what’s best for the team and I feel like it’s going to work out really well.”
Etienne was certainly a high-volume receiving threat at Clemson and Meyer and his staff appears to be of the opinion that his athletic skill set can translate to an expanded passing-game role.
Etienne wasn't used much as a receiver in his first two seasons at Clemson, catching 17 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns in 28 games. But Etienne made it a focus to add receiving to his tool belt before he left Clemson, resulting in him becoming a major piece of Clemson's passing game the last two seasons.
Over Etienne's final 27 college games, he caught 85 receptions for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns, increasing his receptions and yardage in 2020 after going back to Clemson for his senior season.
"A little bit of both, but it really kind of happened organically, just getting used to the playbook and really just honing in on my skills and being comfortable, building my confidence coming out of the backfield," Etienne said on Saturday when asked if it was an organic growth as a receiver or a request from coaches at Clemson.
"Me and Trevor have been building that trust, I just feel we had a really good connection and it’s kind of translated onto the field.”
Etienne got plenty of run in the backfield with Lawrence at Clemson. The two have likely gone through handoffs enough times in practice, warm-ups, and live game action that they could likely do it in their sleep. As for Etienne himself, few running backs in this year's draft had his track record of production and experience -- all the more reason Meyer felt comfortable adding more to his plate as a rookie.
“Yeah, we’re trying — if you saw Travis was getting most of his reps today at wide receiver. He’s the leading rusher in ACC history, so for him to run inside zone, power and zone right now, we thought at the worst-case scenario you have a running back with the skillset of a wide receiver and best case scenario you have a hybrid player that can do both, and that’s what we’re hoping to develop with Travis," Meyer said.
And while Meyer's admission of having Etienne practice at a position he didn't play in college raised plenty of eyebrows throughout social media (even if it shouldn't have), there could be more to the coach's logic than simply wanting to see Etienne line up all over the field.
The logic? The fact that the Jaguars' lone quarterback in rookie minicamp -- No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence -- can't go through handoffs currently due to his recovery from an offseason labrum surgery on his non-throwing shoulder. As a result, it is fair to wonder if Etienne at receiver could just be the best way to maximize his time in camp before Lawrence is full.
"I think you’ll get him pretty close to full go by the end of Phase 3: OTAs and mandatory minicamps. Pitch count, throwing the ball I don’t see is the issue. The number one issue is falling," Meyer said about Lawrence.
"He can’t hand off right now, he can’t take a direct snap from under center. We’re just worried about any chance of that arm getting jammed right now. They’ve told me the labrum is healed after three months, which it’s been three months, but we can’t have a guy on the ground. That’s the biggest thing is we’ve got to keep people away from him. The pitch count is not as big as the fact as keeping him upright.”