By Eric Boynton
CLEMSON, S.C. — Just a few weeks shy of one year ago, Travis Etienne was a high school senior uncertain about his future, sitting at home watching Clemson play Alabama for the national championship.
The teenager was viewing from one room of his home in the small town of Jennings, La., rooting for the Crimson Tide due to the SEC affiliation, while his mother pulled for the Tigers in another part of the house.
Etienne said he told his mom “ ‘(Clemson’s) not going to win, it’s ‘Bama mom,’ just that whole thing. You could hear her screaming when (Clemson) scored the (winning) touchdown.”
It wasn’t long after that a life-altering call came from Clemson co-offensive coordinator/running backs coach Tony Elliott to inquire about Etienne’s services for the first time, less than a month before National Signing Day.
“When he contacted me, I kind of thought it was a joke,” Etienne said. “They just won the national championship, and he’s calling a small kid from Jennings. That call was the breaking point for me that it was meant to be.”
The running back had originally committed to Texas A&M, and he was high on an LSU program only 90 miles away. Clemson initially hadn’t been in the market for a tailback, but when there was a sudden need, the late call went out to the Cajun kid, the final addition to last year’s class, and he signed just six days after committing.
The decision has worked out to near perfection so far. And to cap what’s been a memorable freshman season, the Tigers’ third straight playoff appearance comes Jan. 1 in the Sugar Bowl at the New Orleans Superdome, 170 miles from Etienne’s hometown. The Louisiana high school state championship game is played in that venue, something he long dreamed of doing, but never got the chance.
He never gave much thought to the Sugar Bowl being a final-four destination until after the Tigers had clinched the ACC Championship earlier this month.
“It really hadn’t dawned on me until the night after, until it was right there in front of my face, and it was all happening. It was kind of surreal how everything has happened. How at this time last year I was a de-commit at Texas A&M and now I’m playing for Clemson. Just how everything changes so fast like that.”
Playing in the Superdome is “most definitely a dream come true for me. Just growing up watching the Saints and Reggie Bush run around all the time there, and now I get a chance to try and go imitate what he’s done. Most everybody (in Jennings) is trying to come, and hopefully we get everybody there. It will be like back in high school seeing all the familiar faces in the crowd cheering you on.”
Despite starting a distant fourth on the depth chart behind two upperclassmen and uber-talented sophomore Tavien Feaster, Etienne maximized his opportunities right from the onset. He leads the team with 744 rushing yards, 7.2 yards per carry, and 13 rushing touchdowns, the latter breaking C.J. Spiller’s 11-year-old freshman record of 10. Etienne leads the country with a touchdown every 7.9 carries and has four runs over 50 yards in 103 attempts.
He’s done all this despite never starting a game and getting double-digit carries just twice.
Another oddity in Etienne’s rapid rise and playing a playoff game in his home state is he’s the first Clemson player from Louisiana in 17 seasons and the first signed by Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, even during his days as an assistant at Alabama.
“Now lo and behold, 59 years since we’ve been in the Sugar Bowl and we’re going back,” Swinney said. “He opened up a nice path there, and it’s exciting for him to have a chance to go home and play in the Superdome. I think everything about his experience at Clemson has been great confirmation to him about choosing Clemson because it was a big decision for him to leave home with (LSU) right down the road.”
Swinney continued, “It was a long way to come, but I always tell these guys it’s better to go a little further to the right place than maybe stay closer where it’s not necessarily everything you’re looking for. So he took a leap of faith to come to Clemson and I think he’s certainly happy with that decision. I know we are.”