Florida football: Louisiana HS stars Montrell Johnson, Trevor Etienne spark UF's run game
The Florida football run game has been fueled by a pair of Louisiana running backs from different backgrounds who took different paths to join first-year coach Billy Napier’s program.
Sophomore Montrell Johnson Jr. (46 carries, 368 yards, 5 TDs) and freshman Trevor Etienne (45 carries, 306 yards, 2 TDs) will look to continue their success against home-state powerhouse LSU on Saturday at The Swamp (7 p.m., ESPN).
Johnson, from New Orleans, and Etienne, from Jennings, La., are two of six players from The Pelican State on UF's roster. Two of those, Johnson and preseason All-American guard O’Cyrus Torrence, transferred to UF from Louisiana, where Napier coached for four seasons before being hired by UF.
“We reaped the benefits of it at Louisiana,” Napier said. “And certainly, I think that we've got a handful of Louisiana kids on our team that are going to be excited about it. Any player that's from the state that we're competing against is always excited about playing in front of their home team.
“When you talk about per capita, when you talk about player production in the state of Louisiana, it's as good as there is in the country. About 100 Division I players a year, and certainly we had our fair share of them at the previous stop.”
Johnson goes from Sun Belt to the SEC
Johnson came out of De La Salle High in New Orleans, a high-powered program that has produced a handful of NFL players and competes in the city’s competitive Catholic league. He was the 48th ranked running back in the Class of 2020 and had offers from Tennessee, Virginia and Arizona, but not LSU. Rather than leave his home state for a Power Five program, Johnson spent his freshman year at Louisiana with Napier, where he earned Sun Belt freshman of the year honors with 838 yards and 12 rushing TDs.
The 5-foot-11, 218-pound Johnson then followed Napier to Florida, where his running ability has translated to the SEC level. His 8.0 yards per carry ranks second in the SEC among running backs, behind only Alabama standout Jahmyr Gibbs. Johnson has shown an ability to get tough yards inside the tackles in the red zone and spring some big runs. Four of Johnson’s carries this season have gone for 30 yards or more, including a 62-yard TD run against USF.
Against Missouri last week, Johnson rushed 8 times for 86 yards, which included runs of 41 and 36 yards.
“We were just taking what the defense was giving us throughout the whole, entire game,” Johnson said. “I think that the defense got worn out toward the second half and that’s why everything started to pop as it did.”
Etienne all about football and family
Etienne hails from Jennings, a small town (pop. 10,383) off Interstate 10 about 40 miles west of the Louisiana campus in Lafayette. As a junior, Etienne helped lead Jennings High to a state runner-up finish, boosting the pride of a city whose residents work in the oil fields and plants around town.
“It’s a blue collar, work hard town,” Jennings High coach Rusty Phelps said. “They are proud of this community, they’re proud of this football program, and they support these kids who you know go on to play at the next level.”
At Jennings High, Etienne was preceded by his older brother, Travis, who went on to star at Clemson before being picked by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft. The brothers, Phelps said, were close but competitive.
“That’s one of the things Travis instilled in him was, this is a job, you have to take this serious, and you have to work every day at it,” Phelps said.
The brothers spent summers together in the weight room. Trevor was a three-sport athlete who played point guard on the basketball team as a freshman and sophomore and then played baseball in the spring. Playing point guard helped Trevor with his field vision and cut back ability, along with playing in a veer option offense at Jennings.
“The style of offense that we run I think benefitted him and his brother when they got to the next level, and I think you know that’s just part of the vision,” Phelps said. “Because you know, it’s not always blocked great, and you have to kind ad lib a little bit and maybe cut back or cut out. I think that’s some of the vision he has developed over the years.”
The younger Etienne was recruited by LSU, but because of his older brother’s success at Clemson, his mind was open to leaving the state. He had developed a close relationship with Napier at Louisiana and Louisiana running backs coach Jabar Juluke. Clemson also recruited Trevor hard, but when Napier and Juluke both wound up at Florida, he chose to play for the Gators.
“The familiarity with those two men had a lot to do with the decision that was made for him to go to Florida,” Phelps said.
Etienne enrolled at UF early and gained the trust of the coaching staff during fall camp. As a true freshman, Etienne rushed for 64 yards on 5 carries in his debut against Utah, then wowed the crowd at The Swamp with a nifty, 11-yard TD run on a cut back against Kentucky. He’s coming off a season-high 83 yards on 10 carries against Missouri, which included a 39-yard run.
“He's always been a sharp, mature kid,” Napier said. “I was impressed with the work he did in the spring semester before he got here. I thought he really worked hard, and he was well prepared upon arrival.
“You're talking about a football family. You're talking about a kid who is intelligent, he's mature, he's got character, and he's continuing to get better. I thought we saw that Saturday.”