Even his downward-adjusted 40 time still gives Etienne an 80th-percentile speed score (104.9) vs. NFL RBs. Add in an elite broad jump, and Etienne checks in with an elite Relative Athletic Score (9.14).
Etienne dominated Louisiana high school defenses, averaging 267.1 rushing yards per game and 12.0 per carry as a junior. He followed that with a mere 11.7 yards per rush as a senior, racking up 81 total TDs over those 2 campaigns.
As a 4-star recruit and the 15th-ranked RB in the 2017 class, Etienne made an early commitment to Texas A&M (before his senior year). He later de-committed, though, and selected Clemson among 29 offers -- with suitors including Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, Arkansas and LSU.
Here’s how LSU coach Ed Orgeron felt about missing out on the home-state prospect: “Every time I watch, every time I heard about Clemson play or every time I've seen him having success, I'm sick to my stomach. We've got great running backs here, but we wanted Travis Etienne at the end, but it was too little, too late.”
The sickness probably developed pretty quickly. Etienne had to split carries in a crowded backfield as a true freshman. His 107 tied Tavien Feaster for the rushing-attempt lead among RBs. But 2 others garnered 58+ carries as well, and QB Kelly Bryant led that team with 192 rushes.
Etienne paced the group with 7.2 yards per attempt, though -- 0.9 more than Feaster. He also led all Tigers with 13 TDs (all on the ground). Etienne ranked just 4th among Clemson RBs with a mere 5 receptions, though.
He took over the backfield in his 2nd season. While some long-haired freshman QB shoved Bryant aside early in the year, Etienne started on his way to lead #2 Feaster by 126 rushes. His 8.1 yards per carry beat Feaster’s average by 2.5 and stood 1.0 ahead of 3rd-leading RB rusher Adam Choice. The receiving role remained limited, though (12 catches, 9th on the team).
Feaster moved on to South Carolina for 2019, so Etienne ran 103 more times than new #2 Lyn-J Dixon. Etienne’s 7.8 yards per rush also led Dixon by a healthy 1.7, a season after Dixon had gained 8.8 per carry as a freshman.
Etienne also added receiving in his 3rd season with the Tigers. He ranked 3rd on the team in receptions (37) and yards and tied for 3rd with 4 receiving scores. In each category, only Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross out-produced him.
Many expected Etienne to head to the NFL after that season, but he decided to stick around. Clemson OC Tony Elliott pointed to a desire to develop his receiving: “I think a lot of (Etienne choosing to return) was him understanding that if he wants to continue to play for a long time and transition to the NFL, he’s going to need that piece of his game. He didn’t really have that much exposure to it coming out of high school just because of the style that they played. He always had the natural ability to catch the ball. He just didn’t have a ton of confidence.”
It seemed to work. Etienne’s 48 receptions as a senior set a single-season Clemson record for a RB. His 588 receiving yards led the position nationally. He led all draft-eligible RBs in Pro Football Focus receiving grade and ranked 4th in yards per route run.
Etienne’s yards per carry fell sharply vs. his 1st 3 seasons, but he was also running behind an O-line that had lost 4 starters to the NFL. According to PFF, Etienne managed just 1.8 yards before contact per attempt in 2020 -- well down from his marks of 2.8 in 2019 and 3.8 in 2018.
He did also produce his fewest yards after contact per attempt of those 3 campaigns, however: 3.8 vs. 5.0 in 2019 and 4.3 in 2018. Etienne also turned in his lowest PFF rushing grade (still good at 82.0) among his 3 starting seasons.
For the 4th straight season, Etienne played in every game. He became the only player in Clemson history with multiple 1,500-yard rushing seasons. He’s just the 7th FBS player to ever reach 70 rushing scores, and the 12th to reach 4,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 receiving.
Etienne scored TDs in a record 46 games over his career and set the conference records for rushing yards, total TDs, rushing scores and points.
Along the way, Etienne earned 1st-team All-America honors each of his final 3 seasons.
Let’s just go ahead and start with the speed here.
Everyone knew Etienne brought that from the start. And he doesn’t need a clear runway to take flight.
The long speed can be a differentiator when Etienne does reach the open field. But he wouldn’t be in play for Round 1 of the NFL Draft if he needed the blocking to map out that path to green every time.
And on top of the speed, Etienne brings pop at the 2nd and 3rd level.
I’ve seen some say that Etienne could stand to improve between the tackles. Perhaps that’s true on the grand scale, but I didn’t see any limitation in that area vs. other RBs I’ve watched.
In this clip, for example, can you even see the crease before Etienne hits it?
Many backs with Etienne’s speed and open-field skills might be tempted to look for the big play whenever possible. But I saw plenty of examples from each of the 3 seasons I sampled where the star back simply opted for what was available.
Let’s start with this clip, where he eschews an opportunity to challenge a single defender on the edge and instead punches it down the shorter path …
Despite his slightly below average weight for the position, Etienne ain’t scared to take it up the gut in short-yardage situations.
Here he is giving a free Lyft to a 235-pound ILB …
The receiving, of course, picked way up over his final 2 years. I still didn’t see any routes outside the typical RB roles over the 6 games I watched from those seasons. His 0.57-yard average depth of target (according to PFF) ranked below middle among this year’s 115 draft-eligible backs.
How much that matters will likely depend on his NFL landing spot. You read above about his 2020 receiving production, and his NFL team will surely scheme in ways for Etienne to do stuff like this …
And the player I watched in games from 2019 and 2020 looked plenty confident and smooth in catching short balls and transitioning to run.
Etienne doesn’t play well in pass protection. I saw 1 good rep across the 9 games I watched, plus a couple of others that were OK. But many more looked bad. His technique stinks, and that may or may not be responsible for him looking like he lacked strength for the job.
Will that matter for fantasy purposes? Probably not. Etienne will likely offer the most after-catch upside to whatever NFL backfield adds him.
The only potential limitation for Etienne looks like NFL landing spot.
Does he find a backfield that’s a little crowded and limits his touch upside -- like Jonathan Taylor last year? Does he go somewhere that does have a good receiving back who can also pick up blitzers effectively? Does he wind up with a team that wants to limit his workload?
Some question whether Etienne is ready for an NFL workload after averaging just 13.8 carries per game over 3 years as a starter. We’ll see. But he averaged 14 rushing attempts and 4 receptions per contest last season. Only 9 NFL RBs averaged 18+ touches per contest last year. Over the past 3 years, we’ve had 52 player seasons of 14+ carries per game at RB. That’s 14 per year.
So even if that’s the level at which Etienne sticks, it wouldn’t be a killer for his fantasy upside.
If he makes it into Round 1 of the NFL Draft, he’ll likely match or exceed that level of usage. If Etienne lingers until Round 2, then we’ll have to pay closer attention to his situation. Here are the rookie-year touches for Round 2 RBs from the past 4 seasons (minus Derrius Guice, who missed his rookie year with a torn ACL):
There's always the concern that a 4-year RB took too many hits in college and thus wore down the tread for his NFL tire. But that just puts a positive spin on Etienne's college usage.
Despite playing 4 years at Clemson and controlling RB usage for 3 of those, he ranks just 10th in total carries among all RBs of the past 3 draft classes. Here's that group:
Age shouldn’t be a concern for dynasty drafters. Sure, we would have liked him to come out last year and give us a supposed extra season in the NFL. But Etienne is still …
-- 13 months younger than Rhamondre Stevenson
-- 10.5 months younger than Najee Harris
-- 5 months younger than Kylin Hill
-- 4 days older than Trey Sermon
-- 3.5 months older than Michael Carter
Finally, there’s a fumbling issue: 8 for his career, 4 just last season. We’ll see whether that becomes a problem in the pros, but it certainly shouldn’t alter your rookie-draft plans or him.