How Jaguars’ Travis Etienne rediscovered his love for football following lost rookie season

Jacksonville Jaguars Travis Etienne is fit and ready for a breakout season after missing his entire rookie year with a significant foot injury.

While much of Duval is worried about Travis Etienne’s durability following a major injury that ruined his rookie season, the Jacksonville Jaguars running back is not overthinking it.

Rather, the injury has only fueled his fire, a passion he’s rediscovered as he’s been forced to wait out a grueling rehab process. Turns out, it was time well spent.

Put another way: AFC South teams beware. The former first-round pick wants you to hit him, and you probably won’t like what comes next.

Is Travis Etienne ready to take the NFL by storm?

As for how Etienne’s 5-foot-10, 215-pound frame will handle the rigors of an NFL season, teammate Andre Cisco on Sunday has already given us a sneak preview — and the reviews are excellent.

It was Sunday in Jacksonville, and new Jaguars coach Doug Pederson dialed up a fully padded, full-contact live drill. Emphasis on drill. Cisco, a hard-hitting second-year safety, closed hard on Etienne and walloped him on the sidelines.

And Etienne — the former first-round pick out of Clemson who missed his entire rookie season with a significant foot injury — afterward was just fine.

“Since my last Clemson game, this is the first time I’ve been tackled,” Etienne told local reporters following practice. “I see why I fell in love with the game. I just love that adrenaline. I love getting hit. I just love being physical. Quickly I was reminded that this is a physical game. I just got to get back to myself. I’m grateful that I’m out here playing, making plays. I just got to get back to myself, keep making the right progress.”

The next step in his progression is appearing in a game, either exhibition or regular season. With Week 1 basically a month off, Etienne is on track to be available. But Pederson might want to get him at least a couple of reps during the preseason, which for Jacksonville continues Friday against the Browns.

But doing so would come at some well-established risk. Etienne suffered the Lisfranc injury that cost him his entire rookie campaign in last year’s preseason — and it could have threatened his entire career.

There are few scarier injuries for pro athletes who rely on agility and speed than a Lisfranc, which is an injury to the bones and/or ligaments in the middle of the foot. Minor Lisfranc injuries can heal with time and rehab.

But Etienne, who underwent surgery last September, did not suffer a minor Lisfranc injury. That’s why, until he consistently proves that he’s the same player that dominated college football, there will be some doubts about his future.

Lisfranc injuries either ended or significantly impacted the careers of running backs Maurice Jones-Drew, Ronnie Brown, Cedric Benson, and Ameer Abdullah.

According to a study published on the National Library of Medicine’s website in 2018, roughly one in five NFL players who suffer Lisfranc injuries never play again, and those who do need an average of 10 months to recover.

“Overall, NFL players started fewer games two and three seasons following surgery and showed a significant decline in performance one season after return compared with pre-injury levels,” the report stated. “Offensive players had a significantly greater decline in statistical performance compared with defensive counterparts.”

That study came two years after the same publication released a separate research paper that had more encouraging findings.

“More than 90% of NFL athletes who sustained Lisfranc injuries returned to play in the NFL at a median of 11.1 months from time of injury,” researchers wrote. “Offensive and defensive players experienced a decrease in performance after return from injury that did not reach statistical significance compared with their respective control groups over a similar time period.”

Travis Etienne, college football legend

Based on his performance in camp thus far, Etienne seems to be among the majority. But even if it still impacts him once the season begins, the Jaguars surely would be thrilled to get even 80-to-90% of college Etienne in 2022.

Etienne, who doesn’t turn 24 until after the regular season, was a two-time ACC player of the year and two-time consensus All-American. He amassed more than 6,000 scrimmage yards and 78 offensive touchdowns in his four collegiate seasons.

“Having an elite combination of speed, explosiveness, and contact balance is a foolproof equation for success, but on top of that, Etienne also developed immensely as a receiver since the start of his college career,” said Ian Cummings, a draft analyst for PFN. “Regardless of position, Etienne is a high-quality offensive catalyst, and his expanding versatility only bodes well for his professional development.”

Should his health cooperate, Etienne has a real chance to emerge as one of the NFL’s toughest players to defend.

It’s not a stretch to think that Pederson will use Etienne similarly to how he used Miles Sanders in Philadelphia. In Pederson’s final two seasons as Eagles coach, the versatile Sanders had nearly 2,400 yards from scrimmage and averaged 4.9 yards per carry. And, with all due respect to Sanders, he wasn’t the prospect Etienne was coming out of college.

“I think what impressed me the most about Travis when I played against him in college was his balance,” said Dolphins pass rusher Jaelan Phillips, who faced Etienne in 2020 as a member of the Miami Hurricanes.

“His ability to just stay on his feet. His center of gravity and his quick change of direction and everything. He’s extremely talented and blessed athletically. I don’t know much about him from a teammate standpoint or from a work standpoint. I know that boy’s talented, for sure.”

Projecting Etienne’s 2022 season

Etienne’s talent and improved environment have people expecting big things in 2022. Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, now an analyst for NFL Network, lists Etienne first on his list of running backs poised for a Year 2 breakout.

PFN’s fantasy team projects Etienne to go for over 1,100 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns in his de facto rookie season.

And if those who best know Etienne — his college teammates — are right, those numbers in retrospect might in retrospect look overly conservative.

“I think he’s going to go out there and dominate,” said Tee Higgins, a Bengals receiver who has known Etienne since freshman dorm. “That’s just who he is. He’s a guy that breaks a lot of tackles, doesn’t go down easy, and he’s got the speed.”

Added Dolphins defensive tackle Christian Wilkins, who won a national championship with Etienne at Clemson: “He’s put in all the work. I feel like a year away from ball kind of changed his mindset. Not saying he didn’t have a good mindset before, but I feel like, from what I’ve seen and talked to him, it just seems like he’s putting it all together, and that’s good. It’s up to him what the league will see. But I think the years to come will be pretty solid.”

Trevor Lawrence was Etienne’s quarterback in college. He’s now his quarterback in the NFL too. They were draft classmates in 2021, and together are the reason why some believe Jacksonville could be a dark horse team in a loaded AFC.

“Travis, when we were in college, the guy was never hurt,” Lawrence said after Sunday’s physical practice. “He took some shots, and he was always popping back up and was good the next day, so not really too concerned, but he broke one on the sideline and like ‘Yeah!’ and ‘Oooo’ when he gets hit on the sideline, and I’m like ‘Oh gosh,’ and I told him just to step out right there; we don’t need that right now.

“But he said he wanted to get popped, said he hadn’t been hit in a while. He’ll be all right, he’s tough.”

Tough, yes. And also very talented.

“For me to start feeling myself, I have to get those reps,” Etienne said. “These are my first live reps in forever, and I really wasn’t myself. I had some great runs, but I wasn’t as physical as I am and as I need to be. I feel like for me, it’s just repetition, getting those reps over and over again.

“In a game, I’m going to be down, I’m going to be hurt, I’m going to be fatigued, and I have to still get those reps, and I feel like when it gets to that point, it’s all mental. We’re all hurting. We’re all out there tired. So it’s just who can keep pushing through the mind. Football is a mind game at first. We’re professionals. You have to be at your best when you’re hurting, so that’s what I feel like I’m trying to work towards and keep getting better at.”

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