CLEMSON, S.C. -- Kendall Joseph's first step was a bad one. This was a rarity for the veteran linebacker, and usually he could adjust, but not today. The freshman on the other side was already in full stride, and before Joseph even had a chance to process his mistake, Travis Etienne was gone -- shot through the line of scrimmage like a lightning bolt and on down the field, galloping, one long stride after another, into the end zone.
It was Etienne's first carry against Clemson's first-team defense, and he took it to the house.
Coming off the field, Joseph found his roommate, Adam Choice, and shook his head.
"Dang," Joseph said. "He's fast."
This was no shock to Choice, Clemson's redshirt junior tailback who'd already witnessed Etienne's speed firsthand. For weeks, the kid had been building a highlight reel in 7-on-7 drills or against the third-team defense, but now, here he was, dusting an All-ACC linebacker. And it wasn't just the breakaway speed. It was more. It was the way, with one step, Etienne seemed to freeze a defense, then explode downfield. It was the way Etienne could line up a tackler in his sights and deliver a massive blow before spinning away like a truck shrugging off a splattered insect with one whoosh of the windshield wipers. But more than anything, it was the fact that, no matter how many of these runs Etienne broke in fall camp, it still seemed ridiculous that so much talent could come in that package.
Who could blame him? Etienne looks like a kid in a room of grown men. He's 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, but the weight is all in the legs. Up top, he's skin and bones, and Etienne admits fellow students are often shocked by his stature. He plays so much bigger.
There's the hair: not long, but grown in enough that after a game it has a sort of wild energy to it. Coaches and teammates all fall back on the same phrase to describe Etienne's running style. "He plays like his hair's on fire," coach Dabo Swinney said, and if you're willing to stretch your imagination a bit, the hairstyle actually fits the analogy.
Or maybe it's the personality. There's a hint of the Creole accent, but really it's more bashful reticence. It's only after Etienne really gets comfortable, gets to know people, that the Louisiana native opens up and the absurdist humor and thick Cajun come out.
"Sometimes," Choice said, "you don't even know what he's saying, but it only makes it that much funnier."
Mostly, though, Etienne is polite and unassuming and unwaveringly deferential. His teammates get the credit for his success. His coaches are doing everything right. Answers to every question in a media setting begin with "Yes, sir" or "No, ma'am." And yet it's easy to feel that, lurking somewhere beneath the unpretentious surface, there's a showman.
Then, of course, there are the braces. Etienne got them over the summer.
"Everyone gave me a pep talk about them," he said.
The orthodontist had offered orange bands, but Etienne was already worried about the look. He didn't want to stand out any more, and the braces were going to get some camera time. There's rarely a moment when Etienne isn't smiling, and so the bands stretch and the metal gleams and, well, he looks like a kid. A happy kid, who just torched your defense before anyone even understood what was happening.
That's what Joseph was really saying. Etienne isn't just fast. He's unexpected. He could break 100 of those runs, and the next one would still be something to behold, something new and surprising and exciting.
"He always does it in a flashy way," Choice said. "He's blessed with talent many of us would kill for."
Top-ranked Clemson (11-1) saw the talent early on, but no one was certain there'd be room in this year's recruiting class for a tailback, and besides, Etienne was hardly in the Tigers' recruiting wheelhouse. The last time Clemson signed a player out of Louisiana, Swinney was just a few weeks removed from selling real estate. But a spot opened, and running backs coach Tony Elliott figured Etienne was worth a shot. And so, an hour after Clemson wrapped up a victory over Alabama to secure the national championship, Elliott was on the phone, selling the kid from tiny Jennings on a school he'd never visited.
Etienne grew up a die-hard LSU fan, but his home team had shown only limited interest. Etienne played at a smaller school in a wishbone offense and, well, LSU wasn't sold.
Nick Saban liked him, though. The story longtime Jennings High fan Jim Segura heard was that Saban told Jennings head coach Rusty Phelps that if a kid couldn't cover 10 yards with his first three strides, he didn't even look at him, and he wanted Etienne bad.
But it was Elliott who closed the deal. Nothing special, Etienne said. No perfect sales pitch or moment of clarity. Just a feeling Clemson was where he belonged.
The Tigers were happy to have him, but even they weren't quite sure what they'd gotten.
"We saw it on film," Swinney said, "but you never really know."
Not until fall camp. Then Swinney knew. Then everyone knew.
"Every day, he'd break a long run," Swinney said. "Every day. And it didn't matter what group I put him in with. And I'm like, dang, this kid is something special."
Elliott said he'd never had a player break so many long runs in one camp, but the wiry frame and limited expertise in pass protection still kept Etienne buried on the depth chart, fourth in a group of four. When the season opened, Swinney summed up the backfield by saying he had three potential starters. The other guy was Etienne.
Then in Week 1, Etienne broke a 54-yard run on the sixth carry of his career.
Two weeks later, he had an 81-yard touchdown run against Louisville.
The week after that, he went 50 yards for a score against Boston College.
And by the time the first month of Etienne's career was up, he was already something of a cult hero around Clemson, with fans chanting his name -- "E-T-N, E-T-N" -- despite the fact that, a few weeks earlier, most couldn't even pronounce it. He's now Clemson's leading rusher, despite receiving double-digit carries in just two games.
It's a meteoric rise that begs for comparisons, but there really aren't many.
Swinney said Etienne's violence as a runner reminds him of last season's starting tailback, Wayne Gallman -- only Etienne is a lot faster.
Back home in Jennings, fans clamored for analogies -- to greats of the program's past to stars at nearby LSU.
"They tried to compare me to everybody," he said.
Segura had been around the Jennings High football team for half a century. He'd played there as a kid, and now his son is a team doctor while Segura writes a short column recapping each week's game and helps out with a local radio broadcast. When Jennings won the state championship in 1992, it had a running back named Lawrence Nixon who, to Segura's mind, was the best player to ever come through the program. Until Etienne, that is.
"His junior year, it was like, wow, he's head and shoulders above what I considered the best athlete I'd ever seen," Segura said.
There are more and more folks at Clemson who wonder if the same won't be said there before Etienne's career is done.
Three weeks ago, Etienne rushed for two scores against The Citadel. The second broke C.J. Spiller's school record for touchdowns by a freshman. Spiller, arguably the best Clemson tailback in the program's history, had 10 touchdowns on 129 carries in 2006. Entering Saturday's ACC title game against No. 7 Miami, Etienne has 12 on 32 fewer runs.
After the Citadel game, Etienne was barraged with questions about Spiller. He'd met the Clemson legend a few times, he said, but only for brief conversations. A reporter asked if Etienne's style was at all like Spiller's. The kid grinned, because he always does.
"I haven't really ..." he said before stopping himself.
The end of the sentence, which went unsaid before another reporter interrupted, was that he'd never really seen much of Spiller running. It was before Etienne's time, and it was in a different place. Etienne is an alien here -- a life force from some strange land, complete with superpowers hidden behind a veil of normal humanity. He's a kid. He's Superman.