Why Travis Etienne is the unquestioned No. 1 running back in the 2021 NFL Draft

Clemson RB Travis Etienne stunned many by choosing to return to school in 2020. However, this just means he'll almost undoubtedly the first running back selected in the 2021 NFL Draft.

While several running backs in 2020 decided to spend another year in school, no decision was quite as surprising as that of Travis Etienne. After helping the Clemson Tigers to two straight National Championship games with highlight-reel plays on the biggest stage, Etienne has firmly cemented himself as a household name. Before his decision to return, Etienne was being discussed as one of the potential top backs in the 2020 NFL Draft, alongside the likes of Georgia’s D’Andre Swift. However, in a stacked class of running backs, Etienne ran the risk of slipping down the ranks at the position in 2020. Instead, by returning to school, Etienne has all but assured himself as beginning the season ranked as the top back for the 2021 NFL Draft. Let’s take a look at why the Clemson running back is thought so highly of.

Etienne’s college career to date

Etienne’s college career through his first three seasons makes for some impressive reading. As a freshman in 2017, Etienne appeared in 13 games, but his opportunities were limited somewhat. On just 107 carries, Etienne led the Tigers in rushing with 766 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also added 57 yards receiving on five catches. Etienne even led the team in kickoff returns with 389 yards on 19 returns as he was named to the third team All-ACC.

His numbers skyrocketed in 2018, as he set school records in both rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. In 15 games, he carried 204 times for 1,658 yards and an incredible 24 touchdowns. He also caught 12 passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns. He was named to the Associated Press All-American second-team as well as a finalist for the Doak Walker Award and a semifinalist for the Maxwell Award. Not to mention a unanimous first-team All-ACC selection and AP ACC Offensive Player of the Year.

In 2019, Etienne again appeared in all 15 games, carrying the football 207 times for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns. He added a career-high 37 catches for 432 yards and four touchdowns. He again claimed a spot on the All-American second team and All-ACC first team as well as the ACC Player of the Year. On top of that, he was a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award, Maxwell Award, and Walter Camp Player of the Year Award.

Etienne already owns the Clemson school record with 56 rushing touchdowns and at the rate he’s going, he’ll likely hit 70 rushing touchdowns by the time his college days are over. He’s also averaging almost eight yards per carry, which is an incredible number over the number of carries he has racked up.

What makes Travis Etienne so good?

There haven’t been many running backs that both NFL and Draft Twitter have been in love with lately, but Etienne has won the hearts of just about every football fan. He has that elusive speed you look for in a running back, his first step is so quick, and he has the ability to get up to top speed in seemingly no time.

When Etienne finds that open hole, good luck trying to stop him. He’s also very tough to bring down on first contact as he fights for every yard. Look at his performance against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. He was a human highlight reel and helped will that offense to victory after they faced an early 16-0 deficit.

Even when Etienne has slow starts, Clemson has so much confidence in him that they just keep feeding him the ball and he breaks through at some point. A good example of that is in the 2019 National Championship Game against Alabama. Clemson’s offense as a whole started off fairly quiet before Trevor Lawrence hit a deep shot to Tee Higgins before letting Etienne do his work to get into the end zone. This patience eventually led to an offensive explosion, with Etienne a key part, and a blowout of Alabama to give Clemson their second national title in three seasons.

The added fact that Etienne has become more involved in the passing game as he has progressed through his time at Clemson just adds more weight to him as the likely top option in the 2021 NFL Draft. It’s going to be so exciting to watch him and this Clemson offense in 2020.

What others are saying about Etienne

Scott Gorman wrote up his top five running backs for the 2021 NFL Draft and, not surprisingly, also had Etienne as the number one running back entering the draft cycle.

“The explosive runner has the home-run speed to finish runs and give any team a dynamic threat carrying the ball. He has done that in bunches for a dynamic Clemson offense next to star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Etienne has the chance to score any time he touches the ball, and he did that many times this season, as evidenced by this long run,” Gorman wrote.

Jordan Woodson compiled his early dynasty fantasy football rankings for 2021 and also has Etienne as the top option among running backs, as he also sits at second overall, behind only LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase. He wrote:

“After consecutive 1,600+ yard rushing seasons, Clemson running back Travis Etienne was a near-lock to enter his name into the 2020 NFL Draft. So much for that. In the biggest surprise of NFL Draft season thus far, Etienne decided to forego the opportunity at millions for another ride with his teammates in Clemson, South Carolina. While I already had Etienne penciled in as my RB1 in the 2020 NFL Draft, the amount of running back depth available in this year’s draft certainly played a role in his decision. Etienne decided on graduating college and the opportunity to be the standalone RB1 in the 2021 NFL Draft rather than risk getting lost in the shuffle of a draft featuring fellow stud running backs D’Andre Swift, Jonathan Taylor, and J.K. Dobbins.”

And of course, PFN Draft Analyst Tony Pauline was incredibly high on Etienne, believing all the way back last summer that he would have been the first running back selected in the 2020 draft.

“He is an explosive runner with incredible quickness and speed and a second gear in his game. He shows burst through the hole, beats defenders into the open field, and can run to daylight. Etienne is also a terrific pass catcher and runs hard on the inside,” Pauline wrote back in August. The best way to describe Etienne? He’s a much tougher version of former Tigers RB C.J. Spiller, a top-10 choice in the 2010 NFL Draft.”

What Travis Etienne needs heading into the 2021 NFL Draft

How much more does Etienne really need to show in 2020? The main key for him is just to stay healthy as he tries to lead Clemson to one more national title before the Clemson offense is essentially gutted in 2021 with both Etienne and Lawrence likely heading to the NFL Draft.

Perhaps the only element that Etienne could look to put on tape is further progression in the passing game. As it stands, he is already a fairly complete back, but more evidence of his skills catching the ball out of the backfield is never a bad thing for any back. If that ends up happening, Etienne will lock himself in as the first running back selected in the 2021 NFL Draft and may very well work his way into the top-15 or even top-10 overall.

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