Dabo Swinney has built Clemson into an elite college football program. Since becoming the head coach in 2008, the Tigers have claimed six ACC Championships and two National Championships. Clemson boasts an unprecedented 70-5 record since 2015.
With all the success that Swinney and the Tigers have enjoyed, accolades and recognition have certainly followed. But if there were to be an area that Swinney deserves more credit, it’s how successful he has been with getting his own superstar players to return to school and not leave eligibility on the table to declare for the NFL draft.
After bringing a defensive line that featured eventual first-round picks in Christian Wilkins, Clelin Ferrell, and Dexter Lawrence back for their senior seasons in 2018, Swinney welcomed back running back Travis Etienne this season.
Etienne didn’t have anything left to prove to evaluators. In 2018 and 2019, Etienne rushed for a combined 3,272 yards and 43 touchdowns while averaging just under eight yards per carry. He proved himself as a receiving threat in 2019 with 37 receptions for 432 yards and four touchdowns.
Etienne is an explosive, big-play weapon that adds value on every down. He’s already the program's all-time leading rusher and he holds the ACC record for career rushing touchdowns with 56. A two-time ACC Player of the Year award winner, Etienne would have been a high draft pick in 2020. Instead, he opted to return to Clemson.
His senior campaign got off to a great start in Clemson’s 37-13 victory over Wake Forest. Etienne logged 17 carries for 102 yards and a touchdown in addition to three receptions for 47 yards. While it was far from his most productive outing, he continued to showcase the traits that will make him a coveted prospect next spring.
What makes Etienne so dynamic is his blend of acceleration, creativity, and the suddenness in which he executes cuts. He’s incredibly elusive, agile, and explosive. Those traits were on full display on this 3rd-and-10 draw play Clemson drew up for Etienne to find the yardage needed to move the sticks.
While it’s easy to see how fast Etienne is moving when watching him play, the full appreciation is gained by observing defenders attempting to get the right angle on him to get square, come to balance, and finish. He routinely destroys pursuit angles and has impressive contact balance for a back of his size. Against Wake Forest, Clemson dialed up a short pass to Etienne that gave him a chance to create in space. In typical Etienne fashion, he turned a 2nd-and-16 into a fresh set of downs.
If there was anything I came away disappointed with from Etienne’s performance against Wake Forest, it was his execution in pass protection—that was also a concern in 2019. While he never lacks effort, Etienne is still a touch slow processing his assignments and blocking with the correct technique. He’s notorious for leaning into defenders with his shoulder instead of leveraging his hips and taking on contact face up while engaging his hands and competing to keep his hips square. In addition, there are times where Etienne needs to press the line of scrimmage with more patience and alter his tempo.
While those are fairly minor grips and correctable issues, the main concern for Etienne in 2020 is staying healthy because he has the type of skill set that is perfect for today’s NFL.