Scout's Eye: LSU RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire's transformation from overlooked to indispensable
Edwards-Helaire emerged as one of the most valuable players in college football on Saturday
At LSU, the conversation has always been about the offense. "How can LSU fix the offense? How can LSU find a quarterback? What offensive coordinator has the answers?" And yet, amid the yearly uncertainty, running back has always been a constant. An assembly line of NFL backs -- most of them homegrown -- has created muscle memory in the run game that has defined the offense, even at the expense of modernization ... until 2018.
In a critical season for coach Ed Orgeron, he made a coordinator change in turning to Steve Ensminger and publicly opining about the importance of playing to the strength of his offensive personnel: wide receiver. Nick Brossette and Clyde Edwards-Helaire took over for Derrius Guice and Darrell Williams at running back and LSU finished 59th in the country in rushing yards per game, its lowest ranking since 2009.
Suddenly, running back was added to the list of items that needed fixing in LSU's offense. In 2018, LSU ranked 97th in the nation in running plays of 20 or more yards. The Tigers had the No. 81 rushing offense in the country, according to the SP+ efficiency rankings. LSU's 4.01 yards per rush ranked 91st nationally. Moreover and most shockingly, it didn't look like there was an NFL Draft pick at running back on the roster.
One year later, Edwards-Helaire has emerged as one of the most dynamic and valuable running backs in the nation as the LSU offense has transformed into one of the best in college football.
The Tigers' run game ranks fifth in that SP+ efficiency ranking. Edwards-Helaire had two runs of more than 20 yards in 2018. He has seven already in 2019. He has nine first-down receptions in 2019 after having just two in 2018. While he may not have been on the radar of the NFL in 2018, one NFL scout tells me that the junior is now firmly in the conversation as a mid-round pick with plenty of time to continue his ascent. He's not just viewed in a change-of-pace mold. Despite being listed at 5-foot-8, 209 pounds, he's viewed as "tough, instinctive and strong" and, in the eyes of this scout, a fit in an NFL power-run game.
It's been quite a journey for Edwards-Helaire. The Baton Rouge native was offered by Les Miles in the spring before his junior season. He committed the following February. When Orgeron took over as the head coach, one of the biggest recruiting battles of the cycle was LSU's pursuit of five-star Cam Akers. When it lost that battle to Florida State, and consequently missed on the opportunity to heavily pursue in-state Clemson commit Travis Etienne, there was a lot of hand-wringing and consternation. In particular, there was concern that LSU missed on its prototypical big, physical back.
I was among those that counted Edwards-Helaire out this offseason, too. After the underwhelming performance of the run game in 2018, I hyped the arrivals of running back signees John Emery Jr. and Tyrion Davis-Price as perhaps a missing piece to LSU's ongoing offensive puzzle. Emery, a dynamic and explosive five-star, ranked by 247Sports as the best running back in the country, and Davis-Price, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound bruising four-star that runs a sub 11-second 100 meters, could perhaps combine to provide what Edwards-Helaire lacked.
As a junior, Edwards-Helaire has silenced doubters on both fronts. He's ranked 15th in the country in all-purpose yards per game, 13 spots above Akers and only 11 yards per game behind Etienne. He's held off the talented freshmen who have fallen in line, waiting their turn behind the latest talented LSU back. He's become a Swiss Army Knife in the LSU offense as a nightmare in space for linebackers to defend with ability in the pass-game and power in the run game. He was critical to getting the Alabama monkey off of LSU's back on Saturday.
Edwards-Helaire touched the ball on 11 of the 13 drives on Saturday, 28 times in total. Forty-six percent of those touches resulted in a first down or a touchdown. It was an emotional performance and justifiably, the presumed undersized running back won't be overlooked anymore.
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