Q&A: Clemson freshman Etienne’s road to the Superdome

SYRACUSE, NY - OCTOBER 13: Travis Etienne
SYRACUSE, NY - OCTOBER 13: Travis Etienne /

Clemson freshman sensation Travis Etienne Jr. left the state of Louisiana to sign with the Tigers from South Carolina instead of the LSU Tigers, but tonight, he is back in Louisiana to play in front of more than 20 family members in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. 

Etienne’s road back to Louisiana hasn’t been easy, in fact, the one time Texas A&M commit struggled to land a Power 5 conference scholarship offer for most of his high school career.

South Alabama University was the first to offer Etienne and his first Power 5 conference offer, ironically, came from the team he will face today, Alabama. Burton Burns, an associate head coach/running backs coach at Alabama, gave him that offer in April of 2016. Burns worked at Clemson with current head coach Dabo Swinney from 1999-2006, when Tommy Bowden was the head coach.

Even with that offer, he still hoped for an offer from Clemson. For two years, Etienne periodically asked Jennings High(La) head coach Rusty Phelps, have you heard from Clemson yet and that answer was always, not yet. But when Cordarrian Richardson, Trezevant High(TN) de-committed from the Tigers in late December, Phelps finally got that call.

Today, No. 1 Clemson looks to defeat No. 4 Alabama in the All-State Sugar Bowl for a chance to win back-to-back national titles. Clemson beat the Crimson Tide last year, and weeks after that win, they picked up a commitment from Etienne. The family atmosphere at Clemson was a factor in Etienne selecting the Tigers over Alabama and others, and Clemson hopes Etienne and his family’s presence can help them get another win over the Tide tonight.

Travis Etienne Jr. has 744 rushing yards and a Clemson freshman running back record 13 touchdowns.

Rusty Phelps spoke to me about Etienne’s journey to Clemson.

Why such a slow start to his recruitment and what finally got the ball rolling?

Rusty Phelps: It could be our location because people tend to go to Shreveport, New Orleans, and Monroe or the type of offense we run. Some people have definitely talked about the offense. I think what really happened is that Travis was never the type of guy who wanted to go to the Nike Opening and Under Armour Showcase. He was never caught up into that stuff. But he went to one in New Orleans, and he won the fastest man race. As soon as that race was over, I couldn’t believe how much my phone started blowing up. I got questions like, who is this kid, and I’m thinking. He only just finished with 2,976 rushing yards and 50 touchdowns. That’s basically how it started.

In that race, he beat Cam Akers(FSU) and Caleb Jolivette(Sam Houston). Jolivette has run a 10.31 in the 100 meters. What is his best recorded 100 meters time?

RP: His best time is 10.68. Travis plays basketball and runs track. He didn’t compete in track as a senior, but I think he can run really fast, if he trains more.

What a bit of irony? He leaves the state of Louisiana and now gets to play the biggest game thus far in his young college career there. Have you talked to him about coming home for the Sugar Bowl?

RP: We just texted back and forth a little bit about it. He’s excited to play in his home state, and he will have a lot of people there. I think it’s every kid’s dream from the state of Louisiana to get an opportunity to play in the Superdome. He’s getting to fulfill that dream now.

Are you surprised at how well Travis has done so far in his short college career?

RP: I always felt like he was a Division I running back as far as running the football. My biggest concern was pass protection, because we didn’t ask him to do that. Travis is a football guy. He loves to watch film. He loves to learn the game. I knew if he could get into that playbook, he would pick it up. Coach Elliott is demanding and Travis likes to be coached like that, so I give Elliott a lot of credit for bringing him along.

"“If you want to come to Clemson to get in trouble, don’t come to school there.”"

When it was time for him to pick a school, did you give him any advice or had a preference for him?

RP: My philosophy is that I want the kids to make the decision, because I’m not going to be with them. I just kind of guide and listen. But I felt the connection with Swinney, Elliott and the family and that connection sealed the deal. I’ve never been to Clemson, but they say it’s special. But after being around those guys, I can see why parents want their kids at Clemson.

Initially, how did you feel about his choice of Clemson and what do you think of Clemson and coach Dabo Swinney?

RP: When coach Swinney and Elliott visited, I knew. Well, Elliott came for the initial visit and Swinney came a few days later. I knew there was something between Travis and Elliott that clicked. But there were no promises. I can remember one of things Swinney told Travis and it sticks in my mind today. If you want to come to Clemson to get in trouble, don’t come to school there. And he repeated it.

I can also remember from that day that there was not a whole lot of football talk. Here he is less than a week after winning a National Championship and it was more about life, getting an education, and graduation rates. There was no, come to Clemson to win a championship or NFL talk. He even told Travis’s mom that you are going to allow us to have him, we are going to help you raise him, and then send him back to you as a grown man who is going to be a productive citizen. And that stuck with me.

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What must Clemson do to win the game?

RP: I think Clemson’s defense is great. I think Clemson’s offense is as good as it is, because of the defense they face in practice. They will probably let the quarterback run and throw the football like they have all year. I think Ray Ray(McCloud) can be the X-factor in the game. He can hurt you in the return game, and he can get open. Look, I think it will be an unbelievable game, I really do. You won’t see much difference in Clemson’s approach.