Clemson RB Travis Etienne expands game for final title run

Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports
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CLEMSON, S.C. — While Travis Etienne‘s rushing total alone this season tells a disappointing story, the Clemson senior tailback believes there is a more positive tale that has made his decision to return to school for a final year well worth it.

Etienne finished last season as the two-time reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. He was – and is – a speedy, powerful runner who had totaled 4,038 yards and 56 touchdowns as he led the team in rushing in each of his three years.

He was NFL ready, but instead of heading to the pros, Etienne made another of his signature moves fans gasp at and returned to the Tigers for his senior season.

It all sounded good, but he’s got 882 yards, little more than half his totals of the previous two years. But for Etienne, the numbers don’t tell the story.

“Coming back, I feel like I accomplished everything I wanted to accomplish,” he said. “I’ve grown as a player in so many ways, you wouldn’t understand.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Etienne’s choice in the wake of the team’s disheartening, 42-25 loss to LSU in last year’s national title game was one of a mature player understanding his shortcomings and wanting to improve.

He get to showcase those improvements when the Tigers (10-1, CFP No. 2) face No. 3 Ohio State (6-0; CFP No. 3) in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans on Friday night.

Etienne had gotten a second-round grade from the NFL’s underclassmen advisory panel – good, just not good enough for Etienne.

He understood he needed to improve in pass protection and become more of a threat on the outside. Mission accomplished. He has a career high 44 catches for 524 yards, the most ever gained receiving by a back at Clemson. He’s also led the Tigers with a 24.3-yard average on kickoff returns this season.

“I feel I’ve proven that I’m an all around back, first-, second- and third-down back that can be on the field at any time in the game,” he said. “I feel more complete than I was.”

That versatility was evident to others, too, as Etienne was named this week a first-team AP All-America at all-purpose player.

“Really proud of Travis and how he’s embraced the challenge,” said Tony Elliott, Clemson’s offensive coordinator and running backs coach.

Ohio State linebacker Pete Werner said Etienne’s versatility stands out on film, even more than last year.

“He’s so versatile with the way he can attack you,” Werner said. “He can beat defenses whether they’re running the ball or passing the ball, they’re both threats.”

Etienne’s change may have started in last year’s CFP semifinal as the Buckeyes keyed in on stopping the run. Etienne had only 36 yards rushing, but he led the Tigers with 98 yards and two touchdowns receiving in a 29-23 win at the Fiesta Bowl last season.

Elliott acknowledged defenses are loading up front to stop Clemson’s run and the Tigers’ offensive line, with four first-time starters, has not always been as stout as in Etienne’s earlier seasons.

At times, “we can’t get going before there is that contact on Travis,” Elliott said. “So it’s just a combination of things.”

It’s hard to knock Etienne’s milestones. The 5-foot-10, 205-pound senior from Jennings, Louisiana, was a late add to Clemson’s 2017 recruiting class when another tailback prospect went elsewhere. He quickly rose as the Tigers’ featured back and has become the Atlantic Coast Conference’s all-time leading rusher, surpassing a mark held by North Carolina State’s Ted Brown since 1978.

Etienne is also the league’s career leader in rushing touchdowns and total TDs.

He is very satisfied with how his season has gone. Etienne came back, he said, to graduate (he got his degree in sports communication in December) and to set the right example for his younger brother, Trevor, a junior at Jennings High in Louisiana.

The younger Etienne has scholarship offers from several schools, including Clemson, Alabama, Florida, Florida State and LSU.

“Knowing that he’s going to go through this process, I just want to know I was the best role model for him,” Travis Etienne said.

Etienne hopes to finish the season with another national title before starting his pro career.

“Me coming back was the best thing for me,” he said. “And I made the most out of it.”

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.