Fall Camp Preview: Who gets the ball in crowded RB room? Travis Etienne, of course


by - Senior Writer -
Etienne is a humble superstar.
Etienne is a humble superstar.

Who gets the football? Travis Etienne, the Heisman Trophy candidate? The 5-star freshman? The super sophomores ready to take the next step? The talented junior with all the right moves? Welcome to Tony Elliott’s world.

Elliott, Clemson’s offensive coordinator and running backs coach, has the pleasure of trying to figure out which back gets the carries this season. It all starts with Etienne, of course, and he deserves the lion’s share of the load. But the others deserve a chance as well, making fall camp a critical time for those wanting playing time.

Running back room

RS Sr. Darien Rencher (5-8, 197)

Sr. Travis Etienne (5-10, 208)

Jr. Lyn-J Dixon (5-10, 196)

So. Chez Mellusi (5-11, 202)

So. Mikey Dukes (5-10, 200)

Fr. Demarkcus Bowman (5-9, 191)

Fr. Kobe Pace (5-11, 205)

Let’s start with Etienne.

To recap, from the school website: Burst onto the scene as one of the nation’s most explosive running backs in 2017 and followed up with record-breaking 2018 and 2019 campaigns as a sophomore and junior … enters 2020 bowl season with 518 career carries for 4,038 yards (7.8 avg.) with a school- and ACC-record 56 rushing touchdowns plus 54 career receptions for 567 yards and six receiving touchdowns in 43 career games (40 starts) … enters 2020 as the Clemson and ACC career leader in rushing touchdowns (56), total touchdowns (60) and points by a non-kicker (372) and will open the 2020 season as the nation’s active leader in each category plus career rushing yards (4,038) … back-to-back ACC Player of the Year in 2018 and 2019 who became the first running back to win the award in consecutive years since Mike Voight in 1975-76 … is the only player in school history with multiple 1,500-yard rushing seasons and is one of only 16 Power Five players since 2000 to reach the 1,500-yard mark in multiple seasons, joining AJ Dillon, Ameer Abdullah, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Darren McFadden, Ezekiel Elliott, Jonathan Taylor, Ka’Deem Carey, Kendall Hunter, Lamar Jackson, LaMichael James, Melvin Gordon, Montee Ball, Ray Rice and Steven Jackson … set single-season school records in 2018 in rushing yards (1,658), yards per carry (8.1), rushing touchdowns (24), total touchdowns (26) and points scored (156).

That’s impressive, and it’s made even more impressive when you consider that he averaged 13.8 attempts per game in 2019, 13.6 attempts per game in 2018, and 8.23 attempts per game in 2017.

Etienne enters the season ranked 18th all-time with his 56 rushing touchdowns. That puts him one score ahead of Tony Dorsett (Pitt), Chester Taylor (Toledo), and DeAngelo Williams (Memphis). He is tied with Ken Simonton (Oregon State), Collin Klein (Kansas State), and Steve Owens (Oklahoma).

A similar season to what he had a year ago (24 touchdowns) puts him at 80, while a comparable season to 2018 (19) still puts him close to second on the all-time list behind Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds (88) and first on the all-time list for running backs.

Montee Ball (Wisconsin) had 77 rushing touchdowns for second on the all-time list and first for running backs. Travis Prentice (Miami, OH) had 73, while Ricky Williams (Texas) and Kenneth Dixon (Louisana Tech) each had 72. A solid season might give Etienne the chance to vault into the top-five around the late-season Playoff push.

In fact, Devin Singletary sits at No. 6 all-time with 66 and if Etienne reaches that point he would have passed Cedric Benson (64; Texas), Ron Dayne (63; Wisconsin), and Donnell Pumphrey (62; San Diego State).

One caveat - there is no doubt that Etienne is helped by the fact that he has been able to play in 30 games over the last two seasons and 13 during his freshman season. At 43 career games, Etienne will have more career games than any other person on the list once he reaches the 12th game of the season. Of course, he also has less touches than the others, so it all evens out.

In terms of career rushing yardage, Etienne is at 4,038 career yards. A 1,600-yard season would put him at 5,638 rushing yards, which is good for 8th all-time, which is right behind Charles White (USC) and Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin). He also needs just 565 yards to become the ACC’s all-time leader in rushing yardage.

Whew. That’s a lot, but that’s what Etienne brings to the table.

It’s time for Dixon to take a step forward this season. In 2018, Dixon averaged an impressive 8.82 yards per rush on 62 carries and scored five touchdowns. As a sophomore, he was second on the team in carries (104) and yards (635) while adding 14 catches for 121 yards in the passing game. Dixon scored six touchdowns and saw his average per carry fall to 6.11.

Etienne liked what he saw out of Dixon in the spring.

"He's definitely flipped the switch," Etienne said during spring practice. "For me to keep my job I'm definitely going to have to go hard every play because I'm not entitled to anything even though I've had a successful career here. He's hungrier now more than ever."

Chez Mellusi (276 yards) and Michel Dukes (150 yards) are next in line, and if the depth chart ended there it would still be the best in the ACC and maybe in the country. But it doesn’t end there.

Enter 5-star freshman Demarkcus Bowman and 4-star Kobe Pace.

Swinney compares Bowman to another great Clemson back.

“He’s special. He’s another version of (CJ) Spiller,” Swinney said. “That’s pretty high praise. He’s a long way from that, but as far as just high school tape and explosiveness and track speed – legit track speed – the ability to catch the football… Every time he touches it, he literally can go the distance. Can return (on special teams) and those types of things. I think there’s a lot of similarities between the two coming out of high school. He’s a little thicker probably than C.J. was, but he’s got that type of explosiveness, and it’s easy to see coming out of the system that he’s been playing in.”

A unanimous top-26 national prospect according to the major recruiting services, Bowman amassed 5,081 yards rushing in three years at Lakeland (Fla.) High School, averaging an incredible 11.4 yards per rush and scoring 71 career touchdowns. He logged 26 games with at least 100 yards in his career and averaged 145 yards rushing in his 35 career contests.

Elliott thinks Bowman has a chance to be special.

“Very special,” Elliott said of Bowman. “Is probably going to draw a lot of comparisons to another great out of the state of Florida in C.J. Spiller. Has that dynamic speed, the ability to change the game at any moment. He’s a lot like Travis (Etienne) in that any time he touches the ball, he can go the distance.

“But what I really like about Demarkcus is he loves to run between the tackles, too. He’s a complete running back, can catch the ball out of the backfield. He loves the game of football. He’s already texting me, ‘What can I learn? I’m ready to get there, I want to make an immediate impact.’ So, really, really excited about him.”

Don’t forget about Pace, a running back the Tigers took out of Georgia. Elliott says Pace will be Thunder to Bowman’s Lightning.

“When you go into Cedartown, that's Bulldog country, that is the home of Nick Chubb,” Elliott said. “And what I like about this young man is he's so humble. He is such a hard worker. And if you notice, the last couple of guys that we've had in the running back room have come out of a little small country towns. He just has an edge to him, and I think he's a great complement to Demarkcus. You have Thunder and you got Lightning, but this guy is very very elusive as well for a big guy. He catches the ball well out of the backfield and played some quarterback. So, I think that you guys are gonna be excited about Kobe Pace.”

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