This is Travis Etienne's first play against the Pitt Panthers in the 2019 ACC Championship game.
If that doesn't let you know what we're dealing with here, I don't know what will.
Etienne stepped onto campus and immediately became a sensation for the Tigers. A high school track star and Top-5 prospect in the state of Louisiana, Etienne has that special speed that you just don't teach. He turned that horsepower into a breakout freshman campaign for Clemson, averaging 7.3 yards/attempt on 107 carries in 2017.
So we knew he was good. We've known for a while. But 2018, when the workload increased, Etienne's efficiency didn't go down. It went up. 8.1 yards/attempt on 204 rushes; 24 touchdowns in 2018 keeping pace with his 13 in 2017. Only two backs last season averaged more than 8.0 yards/attempt on over 200 rushes: Etienne and Darrell Henderson of Memphis, eventual third-round pick of the Los Angeles Rams.
Etienne's got potential RB1 hype rolling into 2019, but I am here to tell you he lives up to the billing. He is as advertised. All that and a bag of chips.
It circles back to those explosive plays. I do have some gripes with Etienne's decision-making at times, but if anything, I want him to get more creative and look for opportunities to make more explosive plays. Unlike most runners with his physical skill set, Etienne doesn't dance around in the backfield, risking significant losses for the opportunity to rip off a highlight reel run. Rather, Etienne is a physical, risk-averse runner who is more than willing to burrow his head in the tight creases to pick up modest, positive gains -- sometimes to a fault.
When he gets space, like in the Pitt play you see above, dude's lightning in a bottle. But he doesn't have to be untouched to execute on that level. With that willingness to get skinny, elite levels of contact balance, and wonderful flexibility and anticipation in his lower half to prepare for the next move, Etienne often makes the first man at the line of scrimmage miss -- and if you don't have a second defender to clean up the mess, he'll make you pay.
Look at how immediately Etienne recognizes the penetrator, gets his feet down and his shoulders square, and then how quickly he's able to squirt out into space and get rolling upfield. There's so much urgency in his movements to get out from behind the line of scrimmage and into open field, where he knows he's the most dangerous.
And indeed, he is dangerous. It might be tempting and easy to gloss over the second half of this run as expected -- it isn't. Etienne is an impossible angle breaker at the next level, with linear explosiveness and long speed to embarrass pursuit defenders as he weaves or flips field. In the third level, Etienne is an absolute nightmare -- and that's huge for his pro projection.
Why? Etienne can turn 15 yard runs into 50 yard runs, because of how quickly he challenges safeties and corners in their run fits and pursuit angles. Again, we have another untouched play -- so take it with a grain of salt -- but what Etienne does to Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott here is borderline criminal.
That's "shake your head and shrug" speed. "I don't know what you want me to do, Coach" speed. And it matters, because the NFL is increasingly becoming a passing league, so if you're going to demand handoffs as a back, you better be able to house your opportunities when you get them.
That's Etienne's greatest strength. Yes, he has elite levels of contact balance, great change of direction, great power and leverage -- but the burst and subsequent long speed are both blue-chip level traits that outclass any that we've seen over the last...five years from the position?