What could have been: Several of Clemson's star players discuss their interest in Tennessee before signing with Tigers
Clemson is a win away from capturing its third national title in four seasons and while the first title was won thanks in large part to an offense led by the likes of Deshaun Watson and Hunter Renfrow, last year’s title team and this year’s current run to Monday’s epic showdown against LSU for the next CFB national title have the fingerprints of four outstanding offensive players on it — Trevor Lawrence, Travis Etienne, Tee Higgins and Amari Rodgers.
What else do those four players have in common? They all grew up dreaming of playing for Tennessee.
One of the big storylines heading into Monday’s national championship game in New Orleans is Clemson’s outstanding running back, Travis Etienne, hailing for Louisiana. Ed Orgeron has openly discussed his disappointment that LSU failed to keep Etienne home to play for the SEC’s Tigers but according to Clemson tailback, LSU wasn’t even the SEC team he grew up rooting for as a child from Louisiana.
“Honestly, I didn’t. I grew up a Tennessee Volunteer fan,” Etienne said on Saturday during his latest CFP media availability.
“I don’t know how that came about,” he added. “I just knew I liked the Volunteers, everything. I was really into them as a kid growing up. When I visited there, I really didn’t like it as much. Things just kind of went elsewhere.”
That’s right, another one of Clemson’s star players grew up dreaming of playing for the Vols. If you were unaware, Etienne’s cousin, Janzen Jackson, played defensive back for the Vols in 2009 and 2010.
Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.
So why didn’t Etienne sign with the Vols after being recruited by Butch Jones and his staff?
“I mean, Tennessee was like one of my top schools, I took a visit there and everything. Just didn’t pan out the way I wanted it to,” Etienne answered.
When asked a follow-up on his recruitment to Tennessee, the Clemson running back said he soured on the Volunteers after visiting Knoxville.
“Just when I took my visit there, I just didn’t really — I knew it wasn’t the place for me. I didn’t just vibe with it,” he replied.
It’s been well documented that Trevor Lawrence liked Tennessee early on during his college recruitment and he too discussed the Volunteers on Saturday during his latest CFP media availability.
“I was a Tennessee fan. My mom’s family is from Tennessee. So growing up that’s the only thing I really knew was Tennessee football,” Lawrence said. “Watch them all the time. I think when I got middle school or high school kind of started just I guess when I got offers and stuff I kind of quit being a fan.”
Similar to Etienne’s comment, Lawrence noted that once he started visiting Butch Jones’ Tennessee program during his recruitment, his interest in the Volunteer program began to wane.
“I think you go different places and as a fan, you don’t really see certain things. But when you’re a recruit and you’re picking where you want to go, it’s going to be your life for the next four years, you want to go somewhere where you just vibe with the people and you feel like it’s home and I went to Clemson a lot,” Lawrence continued. “Went to Tennessee a couple times. Just really felt like Clemson was home. It was about the people. Didn’t really matter that I was a fan growing up. It comes down to where you feel the best at.”
Of course Amari Rodgers, a Knoxville native and son of Tennessee legend Tee Martin, also stars for the Clemson offense. No surprise, he was interested in the Vols growing up but he too noted that the program’s recruiting efforts didn’t match up with the Clemson staff.
“It was kind of one of those things where I feel like they expected me to go there because it was my hometown,” Rodgers said according to Matt Connolly of The State. “They didn’t really recruit me hard. They thought just because my dad went there I was gonna go there. That’s not what I wanted. I wanted to enjoy the process and go pick a school like anybody else.”
Tee Higgins, the other Clemson star from East Tennessee that was actually committed to play for Butch Jones’ Volunteer program at one point, said it best — they all had an interest in Tennessee during recruiting but things worked out in a different shade of orange for these four outstanding players.
“It really is crazy to think about it,” Higgins said. “When (Travis) said it me and Amari looked at him and was like, ‘Really?’ We were joking around like, ‘What if we would have went there? We could’ve been legends there like Amari’s dad.’ But we’re here at the national championship game and you can’t go wrong with that.”
Thankfully, Butch Jones is no longer the coach on Rocky Top, but he continues to find ways to haunt the Volunteer program several years after his departure.