Etienne comfortable deciding to return to Clemson amid virus


Travis Etienne had several choices to weigh during the offseason - and his decisions always led him back to Clemson.

Etienne, the two-time reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year, chose to skip the NFL - he received a second-round grade from the NFL's college advisory committee - to play his senior year with the top-ranked Tigers.

Then, once the global pandemic shut down spring ball and off-season workouts locked down for three months, Etienne was forced to consider what he'd do if the ACC, like the Big Ten and Pac 12 conferences, pushed the fall season to the spring.

For Etienne, there was hardly a doubt.

"I'm 100% opted in," he said. "We don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. We're done trying to figure out what's going to happen tomorrow. Every time we step on this field we're all in."

Few on the Tigers thought they'd hear that from Etienne at another summer camp. After all, the 5-foot-10, 200-pound tailback had already had the two highest single-season rushing marks in history with 1,658 yards in 2018 and 1,614 yards last year.

Etienne set the ACC's career mark with 56 rushing touchdowns and can became the first Clemson player in more than 40 years to win the honor as the league's best player in consecutive years.

It seemed a foregone conclusion Etienne would run off to the NFL - to everyone except Etienne, who said he wanted to leave a legacy at Clemson and in college football.

He remembered how after he shared with his mother he was returning, "she'd ask me like once a day if I was sure about my decision."

When the COVID-19 pandemic cancelled spring football, Etienne said he was again questioned about his path should the fall season be altered. Again, he didn't hesitate.

"Yes, he's been committed since we got back" in June, teammate and Heisman Trophy front-runner quarterback Trevor Lawrence said. "That's a great thing for us."

Etienne said he wants a chance to cement his status as one of the best runners in Clemson and ACC history this fall. That conclusion became even stronger when Etienne spent time at home in Jennings, Louisiana and watched his younger brother and nieces prepare for their youth seasons.

"It showed me again what I love about football," he said.

Former Clemson tailback C.J. Spiller, the last runner from the school to win ACC player of the year in 2009, believes Etienne's combination of power and speed give him a strong chance to succeed in the NFL when the time comes.

"With Travis, you don't know what he's going to do because he can run you over, and then he's fast enough he can run around you," said Spiller, who recently joined Clemson's football staff as a graduate intern.

Etienne was a last-minute addition to the Tigers before the 2017 season, a late-cycle recruit when other targets passed on Clemson.

Offensive coordinator and running backs coach Tony Elliott wasn't sold on Etienne's form until he watched him play basketball and saw how fluid and effortless he was on the court. That has transferred to the football field and the Tigers have gone 41-3, won three ACC titles and a national championship with Etienne as the primary back.

Elliott was thrilled to have him back for one last run. He said Etienne wants to improve on area's like pass protection and pass catching to make himself a more complete player.

"He's got his head on his shoulders straight. And he's trying to do what's best for the long term and his future," Elliott said. "And right now he's looked as good as he's ever looked."

Etienne understands the uncertainty of the virus could curtail his season this fall and the questions about his choices will return.

He ready to tackle them head on.

"I wouldn't have any regrets because it was my decision to come back," Etienne said. "I definitely came back and got better on the field, off the field, mentally, physically, spiritually."