The only running back committed to LSU’s 2017 recruiting class is a player some believe is too small to play in the Southeastern Conference.
After totaling more than 3,000 career rushing yards at Catholic High and leading the Bears to its first state championship in 2015, Clyde Edwards-Helaire still claims to hear those sort of things. He’s used it by now. When Edwards-Helaire was 10, he rode the bench on his youth football team. Coaches didn’t believe he had the size or the physicality to carry the ball between the tackles.
“I still have that in the back of my brain,” Edwards-Helaire, the only freshman to ever play varsity for Catholic, said, “being told I couldn’t do something when I knew I could.”
No, the 5-foot-7, 191 pounder doesn’t look like the burly tailbacks who’ve come down the LSU running back pipeline, like Spencer Ware, Kenny Hilliard, Jeremy Hill or Leonard Fournette. Even Derrius Guice, Edwards-Helaire’s teammate at Catholic for two years, was roughly 20 pounds heavier and three inches taller when he came out of high school.
And no, the three-star prospect isn’t even regarded as the best running back in Louisiana, a state without many elite running back prospects in this recruiting cycle or the next. That title belongs to Jennings’ Travis Etienne, who rebuffed a late offer from LSU to accept an even later offer from Clemson last week.
“It was a bit of a down year in terms of overall running backs,” said Shea Dixon, who covers LSU recruiting for 247Sports, “because, in the past, LSU’s taken multiple in-state running backs and still had to turn away some really talented players.”
Being overlooked is just fine with Edwards-Helaire. He agrees he plays with a chip on his shoulder anyway. And being the only running back in the class wasn’t really important to Edwards-Helaire because he feels his skill set is different than any of the possible additions to LSU’s four-man backfield.
Even Dale Weiner, who coached the likes of Travis Minor, Kevin Franklin, Warrick Dunn and Guice at Catholic, said he hasn’t seen a running back quite like Edwards-Helaire.
“He has his own intangible qualities,” the recently retired Weiner said. “One of the things is he’s a tremendous blend of skills. Obviously, he’s a powerful runner. He’s one of the stronger kids we’ve had at that position. He’s got a great burst. He can run by people. But he’s also a very gifted with his hands. He has great receiving skills.”
LSU’s attention turned to out-of-state running backs once it locked in Edwards-Helaire’s commitment before his injury-plague senior season with the Bears. The Tigers’ most-coveted running-back target was Mississippi five-star tailback Cam Akers, the No. 2 overall prospect in the class according to 247Sports’ composite rankings.
LSU made Akers’ list of finalists, but he chose Florida State. LSU immediately shifted directions, offering Etienne hours before Akers made his announcement. Meanwhile, Edwards-Helaire, mulling an offer from Mississippi State, felt slighted. He briefly reopened his recruitment, wanting better communication with LSU staff members on his fit in Matt Canada’s multiple scheme. He visited the Bulldogs last weekend but will sign with Tigers on Wednesday.
“Usually I don’t read into the media and what not, but some stuff you can’t avoid,” Edwards-Helaire said. “Then you had the whole situation with the other running backs being recruited, and I kind of just got put in a shadow. I stayed solid. Now, it’s time to work. The same spark I had when I was younger, I’m bringing it here. It’s going to be 200 times as much as it was back then.”
Canada’s system could be a critical piece to Edwards-Helaire’s utilization early in his career. The sturdy tailback balances his aggressive running style with wide receiver-like hands. He was often featured in the slot in Catholic offensive coordinator Gabe Fertitta’s offense.
"(Canada’s) found ways to use everyone — no matter the position, no matter the size — to their advantage,” Dixon said. “I think a guy like Clyde can, certainly, get into the program and get adjusted. Then when he’s called on, certainly deliver for them. I think he doesn’t quite have the size of other prototypical SEC backs, but he still runs with that same power and vision.”
The need for versatility is something Edwards-Helaire’s older brother, Leon Alexander, emphasized to him well before he ever played a down for the Bears.
“He’ll be outside throwing the football with me,” Edwards-Helaire said of his memories with Alexander, who now plays at Nicholls State. “I would hear him saying, ‘Man, I don’t know too many running backs that can catch. All they know is run, run, run, run, run.’ So I would start working on receiver stuff. And then he’ll be like, ‘Well, you need to have more demanding running when you’re going inside the tackles. You don’t want to be one dimensional, only running outside.’
“So I was able to work on some inside the tackles, gain some weight, learn angles and what not, getting small behind my pads. That helps break tackles. Every little thing you see in my game is something I developed within time.”