SAN JOSE, Calif. — Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott stole a quick sideways glance at Travis Etienne, answering reporters’ questions on the podium next to him Saturday at CFP media day.
“He's still got a lot of room before he hits his ceiling,” Elliott said. “He's made some progress, put on some good weight. But he really hasn't started to fill out. If you look at him, he doesn't look like a typical running back from the top up. From the bottom down, he does. He's going to continue to mature upper-body-wise, put on some more good weight to help him be more physical, a stronger runner.”
If this season has been Etienne not fully developed, it is hard to imagine exactly where his ceiling might be.
Most of the offensive oxygen during No. 2-ranked Clemson’s unbeaten march back to the CFP National Championship Game against Alabama (7 p.m. Monday, ESPN) has been swallowed up in the talk about freshman phenom quarterback Trevor Lawrence. But there would likely be a lot less to talk regarding Lawrence and Clemson’s potent passing attack were it not for Etienne’s rushing ability.
The 5-foot-10, 200-pound sophomore from Jennings flirted at times this season with becoming a dark horse Heisman Trophy candidate, rushing for 1,572 yards and 22 touchdowns on 190 carries.
Negative plays? They were negligible. Etienne was trapped for only 11 yards in losses the entire season.
That said, even Etienne agrees with Elliott. He has a ways to go.
“I definitely feel like I'm just scratching the surface of who and what I can be as a player and as a man,” Etienne said. “Just going to have to go in next season and work even harder and not lose sight of the things I want most out of life.”
When his playing days are done, Etienne wants to be a family psychiatrist. For now, what he wants is a good shrimp boil, or a taste of his mom’s gumbo or a pork chop sandwich — a few of the things he misses about Louisiana when he’s off playing football and going to school in South Carolina.
For now, this national championship showdown with No. 1 Alabama will easily suffice.
“I'm very excited to be here,” Etienne said. “It's a great experience. It's a humbling experience and we worked all year to get here. It's finally here, and it's just really great. Just can't wait for Monday. Feels like it's so far away because you're anxious to get there. We're not going to take that moment for granted.”
The Clemson offense that is flying so high now was smothered like a pork chop in the 2018 Sugar Bowl against Alabama, a game that served as one of last season’s CFP semifinals. The Crimson Tide ground down the Tigers 24-6, allowing only 188 yards. Etienne managed just 22 yards on four carries.
Etienne expects a similar challenge this year.
“This is the best defense we've played all year,” he said. “Great secondary; great front; the linebackers are outstanding; (Quinnen) Williams is an elite talent. It's going to be a hard challenge for us and a very physical game.”
Etienne said former LSU All-American running back Leonard Fournette is one of the players he patterns his running style after, but Etienne decided he did not want to follow so closely in Fournette’s cleat tracks.
The LSU staff under then-coach Les Miles got a late start recruiting the four-star prospect, and he opted to sign with Clemson after becoming its final commitment of the Class of 2017.
Etienne said the atmosphere has improved for him back home. They may love LSU in Jennings, but everyone also loves a winner like Etienne.
“When I go home, they kind of like wish me luck and stuff like that,” he said. “I don't get as much grief about not going to LSU than I did when I first came here. They are just happy for me and happy that I'm here.”
Perhaps folks back home will be happier for him still if he can help Clemson beat LSU’s nemesis, the Crimson Tide.