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Coaches corner: Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott on RB Travis Etienne Jr.

Clemson running back Travis Etienne runs for a touchdown against Ohio State during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifinal Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
Clemson running back Travis Etienne runs for a touchdown against Ohio State during the second half of the Fiesta Bowl NCAA college football playoff semifinal Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

JACKSONVILLE – Travis Etienne is good. Really good.

It's how the Jaguars' new running back thinks of that concept that could key his development as he moves from Clemson University to the NFL.

"What makes Travis special is he really doesn't fully comprehend how good he is," Tony Elliott told this week. "It keeps him humble; it keeps him working. I'm amazed at some of the things he's able to do on a football field. I can see the potential he still has ahead of him.

"There's still more room before he reaches his ceiling."

Elliott, Clemson's offensive coordinator, also served as running backs throughout Etienne's four collegiate seasons. He described Etienne – selected by the Jaguars last Thursday No. 25 overall in the 2021 NFL Draft – as a player driven to improve.

And he said that can be seen in his improvement as a pass receiver late in college career.

Elliott told the story:

"He was in a Wing-T offense in high school, and he was hardly ever asked to catch the ball coming out of the backfield. He didn't have a strong skillset. He was very natural catching the ball, but not a ton of confidence because he was never asked to do it. That showed when he got here."

Elliott laughed recalling a play versus South Carolina in Etienne's freshman season: "We threw him a hitch route in the slot, and I don't think he broke the spiral on the ball. He immediately ran off the field, embarrassed that he wasn't able to catch it."

Elliott said that play helped motivate Etienne.

"He improved as a junior, but this offseason he really focused on that area," Elliott said.

That improvement showed. Etienne, who finished his career as the Atlantic Coast Conference's all-time rushing yards (4,952) and touchdowns (78) leader, caught 17 passes for 135 yards and two touchdowns in his first two seasons before catching 85 passes for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns in his final two collegiate seasons.

"He's much more than a running back," Jaguars Head Coach Urban Meyer said. "He's a guy that had a lot of production in the pass game at Clemson. He has excellent hands and he'll be a guy that we dual-train. Those guys are hard to find, but if you find one, we know how to use them. With him I expect an instant impact."

Elliott called the two-time Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year "the most low-maintenance superstar you ever want to be around," saying the desire and ability to improve defines him.

"When he came in, he was just, 'I want to get into the league,''' Elliott said. "He didn't quite know how, but he wanted to get there. As he grew, I was able to express to him, 'These are the different aspects of your game you're going to have to improve to not only get to the league, but to stay there.'''

When ABC named Etienne the game's Leather Helmet Award Most Valuable Player in a victory over Boston College this past season, Etienne in turn gave the award to quarterback B.J. Uiagalelei – who was making his first start in place of then-Clemson and now-Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who missed the game after testing positive for COVID-19.

"That's who Travis is," Elliott said. "He doesn't want to be the center of attention, but he's very self-aware and he understands the big picture as well. He understood the amount of pressure that was on D.J. I told him, 'You might have to step up and play a bigger role.' He did, but he wanted to deflect the credit to D.J."

Etienne also studied former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, incorporating Bell's "skip step" into his game.

"I didn't let every back skip step, because not everyone can do it," Elliott said. "But he can see things and emulate them and then morph them into his own style."

And while Elliott has seen big-time players throughout a decade at Clemson, he said Etienne is special within that context.

"The game has really slowed down for him," Elliott said. "Where I see the difference is the game has really slowed down to him. When he first showed up, he was speed and power, run fast and go score. That's all he knew.

"He's to the point that he understands big picture. That allows him to slow the game down."


Elliott on Lawrence: "What I'd like to put out there is what you see is what you get. He's really who we say he is and who he says he is. He's the kind of guy who can walk through the room and speak to everybody, but he doesn't expect everybody to automatically speak back because he's Trevor. He's trying to earn everybody's respect every single day with the way he carries himself. He's an inspiration."

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