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Clemson running backs put on a show in opener

September 3, 2017

CLEMSON – The biggest question mark for the Clemson offense heading into this season was clearly who would replace All-American quarterback Deshaun Watson.

But not too far behind were concerns about who was going to fill the void left by running back Wayne Gallman, who was taken in the fourth round of last April’s NFL draft by the New York Giants.

Would it be C.J. Fuller, a fourth-year junior who has waited patiently behind Gallman for the past two seasons for his chance to shine? Or would be it be sophomore Tavien Feaster, who came to Clemson as one of the state’s top running back prospects two years ago?

Or perhaps Adam Choice or even true freshman Travis Etienne?

As it turned out, it would be all of the above.

Fuller, Feaster, Choice and Etienne all got their touches and all found the end zone at least once during Clemson’s 56-3 rout over Kent State. If Saturday is any indication, the running back position might be the deepest unit on the Tigers’ offense behind wide receiver.

Fuller came into the game as the designated starter and certainly did nothing to hurt his chances of getting more carries in the future, finishing with 51 yards and two touchdowns on seven rushes.

“To come out in the first game and execute at a high level felt really good,” Fuller said. “The offensive line did a great job opening holes and creating chances for me to get to the next level. It just seemed like everything clicked today.”

Feaster and Etienne each showed their big-play potential with explosive runs, and both averaged more than 10 yards a carry.

Feaster, from nearby Spartanburg, burst over the right side and easily outran Golden Flashes defenders into the end zone on his way to a 47-yard touchdown in the third quarter.

“It felt good to be in this year’s game plan,” said Feaster, who finished with 69 yards on just six attempts. “I worked really hard during the summer to get into this position. The line had a great block to get me free, and I was excited to get out there and finally get a long one.”

Etienne, a 5-10, 200-pound freshman from Jennings, La., might have been the most impressive running back Saturday. Playing mostly in the fourth quarter, he led all Clemson rushers with 81 yards on eight carries, including a 54-yard run that was the longest rush of the afternoon.

“You all got to see Etienne really for the first time,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “He’s an explosive player, a strong runner. He’s going to be something. He’s fun to coach.”

Etienne, who had never seen a live game at Death Valley, didn’t appear to be nervous in his first collegiate action.

“Travis is a very special player with the ball in his hands,” said Clemson co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott. “He doesn’t run like a freshman. He hits the hole hard and he doesn’t mind contact.”

The performances of all four running backs did little to clear up the issue of who is going to be the featured player in the Tigers’ offense.

But that’s a good problem to have, Swinney said.

“I’m just really proud of all of the running backs, but that’s what we’ve seen in practice all camp,” Swinney said. “I think we’re going to be an offense at that position where we’re going to go with the hot hand, but we’re not going to hesitate to substitute and have fresh legs in there. They’re all engaged and they’re all ready to go.”