Clyde Edwards-Helaire sat in a team meeting Monday afternoon when LSU released its first depth chart. He had earned a spot as the starting running back, and he wanted to tell his mom. But phones aren’t allowed in meetings.
“Knowing her, she probably saw it on Twitter already,” Edwards-Helaire said later that day. “It might be a little more personal coming from me when I call her. It's something I can't wait to do.”
For the last two years, Edwards-Helaire has played in a complementary role, first as a backup and then as a pairing to Nick Brossette. In some ways, Edwards-Helaire entered his junior year overlooked because of justified commotion surrounding two freshmen, John Emery and Tyrion Davis-Price.
Emery, a five-star recruit, was the highest-rated running back to sign with LSU since Leonard Fournette. Davis-Price joined as the eighth-highest rated running back recruit in the country, according to 247Sports. They both scored more than 25 touchdowns their senior years of high school.
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During LSU’s coaches caravan stop in Houston this summer, running backs coach Tommie Robinson answered more questions from fans about the freshmen than anything else. They were the unknowns dripping with potential, but Edwards-Helaire, who’s 5-foot-8 and 209 pounds, established himself as the starter during preseason practice.
“Clyde is one of the best players on our team,” coach Ed Orgeron said. “I tell everybody: Clyde is 6-4, 270 when he walks in the room. He has a lot of confidence. He runs our offense exactly how we want it.”
Growing up in Baton Rouge, Edwards-Helaire watched LSU games on television. He saw the running backs and wondered if, some day, he could play their position.
Edwards-Helaire became the first freshman to make Catholic High’s varsity team in at least three decades, and on his first play, he returned a punt 60 yards for a touchdown. He played behind Derrius Guice for two years, waiting his turn. As a senior, Edwards-Helaire led Catholic to its first state championship.
Ed Orgeron remembers his first college football game vividly.
A backup to Guice and Darrel Williams when he arrived at LSU, Edwards-Helaire knew he needed to work his way up the depth chart. He wanted to travel to away games, and he did, finding a role on kickoff returns. The first play of the season, Edwards-Helaire stood on the goal line of the Superdome.
“At that point, I was a starter on LSU's football team,” Edwards-Helaire said, “but getting those running back touches was something I always thought about.”
During fall camp his sophomore year, Edwards-Helaire practiced through injuries as he competed with Brossette. He ended up playing in every game without a start, rushing for 658 yards and seven touchdowns. He led the team in all-purpose yards per game.
As LSU’s offense lined up during preseason practice this month, Edwards-Helaire stood next to starting quarterback Joe Burrow. The freshmen waited their turn.
“Y'all should come in and compete like you want to be the starter,” Edwards-Helaire told them. “I'm going to compete with y'all like I'm not a solidified starter.”
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The Tigers entered fall camp searching for their best pass protector, route runner and starter. They wanted to find at least three reliable backs. Some of those decisions haven’t been revealed. At the very least, Edwards-Helaire will start against Georgia Southern.
“He's been consistent on a daily basis,” outside linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson said. “It's good to have some help to where he doesn't have to be an every-down back. He has a good rotation to catch his breath. But we trust Clyde enough to where he'll get the job done.”
Edwards-Helaire can run through tackles, but he’s more of a cut and dart running back, the kind of shifty player who will “make you look silly,” Chaisson said. Safety Grant Delpit, considered one of the top defensive players in college football, has struggled to tackle Edwards-Helaire.
In LSU’s run-pass option offense this season, the running backs will be asked to catch more passes. The scheme has worked well for Edwards-Helaire, who sometimes lined up as a wide receiver in high school.
As LSU prepares for Georgia Southern's gun triple-option offense, wide receiver Jontre Kirklin has played scout team quarterback.
“I never have to turn to him and make sure he knows what he's doing,” Burrow said. “He's got it down.”
The Tigers will use multiple running backs throughout the season. The heralded freshmen might take a chunk of carries. But as the season begins Saturday in Tiger Stadium, Edwards-Helaire has earned the first start of his career. He waited in high school. He waited at LSU. It’s now his turn.
“Everything's not official,” Edwards-Helaire said, “but when I get that first start, I'm still going to text my mom and be like, ‘I'm the starting running back at LSU.' That's something I've always wanted to tell her.”
Soon, he can.