Perceptions of the running back position changed. One of the sports true glory spots, and one of the most highlighted roles on the field is now treated by many teams as a specialists paradise. The New England Patriots have made a field day out of this, featuring five different 1,000 yard rushers in the 16-year, 5-Super Bowl Bill Belichick era. It’s not a position of emphasis for Belichick and they’ve found assorted production by sweeping in on players either past their primes or with troubled histories. More commonly, players with highly defined roles in the offense, like LSU legend Kevin Faulk. Faulk lasted 13 seasons in New England despite never rushing for even 700 yards.
Running backs still win awards but teams are shifting further and further away from dedicating heavy resources to them in the NFL or being overly reliant on a single one in college. A special talent like Dalvin Cook fell to the second round in the 2017 NFL draft, despite no major looming legal issues. Sure, the ever present “character concerns” cropped up, but his file reads much more like dumb college kid than hardened felon.
LSU is on a near uninterrupted run of greatness at the RB position beginning in 2012, as Jeremy Hill assumed starting duties midway through the season. Just take a look:
6,530 yards and 73 TDs and that’s just from the players that finished the season as starters. Hill, by the way, is the last LSU running back to rush for 100 yards against Alabama, and he did it in 2012.
Being a great RB at LSU is not an exception... it’s an expectation.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire may be the next in succession.
The Back of the Card
110 - 101 = Franchise Player. One of the best players to come along in years, if not decades. Odds of having a player in this category every year is slim. This prospect has "can’t miss" talent.
100 - 98 = Five-star prospect. One of the top 30 players in the nation. This player has excellent pro-potential and should emerge as one of the best in the country before the end of his career. There will be 32 prospects ranked in this range in every football class to mirror the first round of the NFL Draft.
97 - 90 = Four-star prospect. One of the top 300 players in the nation. This prospect will be an impact-player for his college team. He is an All-American candidate who is projected to play professionally.
89 - 80 = Three-star prospect. One of the top 10% players in the nation. This player will develop into a reliable starter for his college team and is among the best players in his region of the country. Many three-stars have significant pro potential.
79 - below = Two-star prospect. This player makes up the bulk of Division I rosters. He may have little pro-potential, but is likely to become a role player for his respective school.
247 Composite Ranking: ***
247 Composite Rating: .8846
Though CEH ranked just 382nd in the 247 Composite, he was ranked as the number five all-purpose back. Regardless, he’s not a guy that was really valued by the recruiting services. 247 themselves did give him a 4-star ranking.
His light ranking may have to do with his stature (listed at 5’7”), though he’s built like a truck, and already aptly named “stump” by Derrius Guice. His lack of height and the tendency of Louisiana HS prospects to be overlooked by recruiting services and injury history are the three primary explanations I can find for his low ranking. The first two are somewhat inexplicable, though the third does pose potentially difficult questions about his future.
On the Field
Already There: Size, Foot work, Decisiveness, Explosiveness, Patience, Power, Returns, Pass Catching
Working On It: Pass Pro, Aggression
Doesn’t Have It: Health?
Size: Let me state outright that I do not care about the height of the running back. Particularly if you are talking about the shorter side of things. Football is a leverage game and smaller backs have thrived at all levels for years now. The greatest RB known to mankind was 5-8, so I think it best not to quibble with the number. Repeat after me: Clyde Edwards-Helaire is short. He is not small. And when it comes to size, he’s college ready. The LSU roster lists him at 5-8, 208 pounds. And he ain’t chubby.
Foot work: Quick feet is an attribute I always seek out for backs. I’ve seen guys who run 4.4s not be particularly nimble on their feet. I’ve seen slower guys that can tap dance around toothpicks. Quick feet can cover a myriad of flaws in a player at the running back position and CEH may have some of the most nimble in this class. The play at :14 in the HUDL tape is all sorts of HS goofy, but thanks in large part to CEH’s quick feet and ability to make defenders look silly in missing. Flip forward to about :25 to see some magician shit:
It’s illegal in 32 states and 19 countries to change directions that easily. Number 81 should have had to remove his jockstrap on the sideline and publicly announce his retirement from the game of football. The three stooges that collide after that should get their own sitcom. The guy he shakes at 1:07 could be featured on an AND1 mixtape.
Decisiveness: One of the things that makes Derrius Guice a special back is that he’s aggressive and decisive when cutting. His physical tools allow him to do things others cannot even dream, but mentally Guice doesn’t try and dazzle with a million cuts, though his abilities allow. He’s gonna hit his cut and get downfield. I see the same from CEH. Watch :35. Two jump cuts, squares shoulders downhill and goes.
Explosiveness: Tying to the above two attributes, CEH pairs his footwork and his decisiveness with elite explosive potential that makes him a legitimate big play threat. When I think of explosiveness, I think of guys that get to top speed in a hurry. They don’t build to that mark, they hit in a couple steps. You can see many times in the reel that once he gets his shoulders square, he’s already at top speed and quickly eating up yardage.
Patience: At 2:49 is a prime example of a back not looking to try and create on his own. He follows his blockers, waits for the play to develop and explodes into the opening. This will prepare him well for the next two levels. 3:25 again, you see how he waits for the play to unfold, rather than trying to force his hand, and his patience is richly rewarded.
Power: There’s several examples, but at 1:59 you can see how his low center of gravity allows him to run through arm tackles, keep his balance and finish off plays. Then again at 2:27 you got that whole human pinball thing going on.
Returns: Not surprising that a player with his special physical traits would excel in the return game, but it’s nice to see him doing it at 1:36.
Pass Catching: There’s a couple examples of screens in there, but the play at 3:09 best flexes his catching skills as he’s running down the sideline and having to make an over the shoulder grab. He’s not a hands catcher, but he looks to be perfectly suitable as a pass catching back. The play at 4:05 he does display nice hands while running a WR route. Should make him a multi-dimensional threat.
Working On It
Pass Pro: Only one highlight of him blocking on tape, and this is usually the biggest hurdle that keeps young backs off the field. Frankly, most of playing running back is easy, but if you can’t protect the QB, your ass will rarely see the field. CEH will have to display an understanding and willingness here if he’s to contribute as a true freshman.
Aggression: Don’t mistake his decisiveness for aggression. When I say aggression, I look for backs who love to initiate contact. Running back is a collision position. You expect receivers to avoid contact as frequently as possible. But backs are often running headlong into a massive car crash 30-40 times a game. I wouldn’t say CEH runs tepidly, but I also don’t see a player who thrives on contact quite like Hill, Fournette and Guice have in the recent past. This is something I would love to see more from him.
Doesn’t Have It
Health: He managed only 58 carries his senior season, which could be cause for concern.
Poseur’s 80s Movie Comparison
Clyde Edwards-Helaire is already the cult hero of this class. He’s the little guy who we now expect big things from. He’s not nearly the super-hyped prospect Fournette or Guice were, but he has the potential to be a great, beloved player. He has the air of an underdog, primarily due to his small package.
CEH is the cult classic Time Bandits. Yes, this is a cheap joke about a movie which stars a bunch of little people, but the analogy still holds. This is a brilliant film from a brilliant director (Terry Gilliam) who has spent his career forging his own path, to hell what anyone wlse says. It’s not the best movie in his filmography (that would be Brazil), but CEH likely won’t quite match the heights of Fournette and Guice. Instead, he is on the path of simply being a great player, and a beloved cult figure. Besides, it’s hard to say a movie made by a Monty Python alum with John Cleese and Sean Connery getting top billing is really that much of an underdog. It feels like an underdog, but really, it was great all along.
What the Future Holds
Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s recruitment took a late winding path. He originally pledged to Frank Wilson, held firm through the Jabbar Juluke era and had what felt like 5-minute Twitter de-commitment before eventually signing with LSU to play for new position coach Tommie Robinson. He unintentionally became a majorly important player in this signing class when five-star Cam Akers opted to sign with FSU and LSU struck out on any remaining targets.
I wrote this far without peeking back at my Better Know a Freshman on Guice, and sure enough the strengths are similar. I saw the makings of a star in Guice, pegging him as an All-American with potential to be one of the best backs in the nation. I noted Guice would quickly ascend to be the number two back on the roster and assume the starting role once Fournette departed, which is precisely what happened, though the timeline was expedited due to Fournette’s injuries.
It’s quite possible Edwards-Helaire is on a same trajectory. He’s already drawing rave reviews from the coaching staff and his teammates are calling him unstoppable. The major difference here is the way the depth chart shakes. When Guice arrived at LSU, Fournette’s backup was one-dimensional Darrell Williams and his competition was fellow four-star Nick Brossette. Both of those guys are still on the roster and yet CEH is the one drawing the preseason praise. I’d say a solid shot he emerges as the guy with the second most carries by seasons’ end. I think the distribution of backup carries will be pretty equal, but I see CEH emerging as “the” guy to the extent we will know he’s the intended starter in 2018.
Edwards-Helaire has dynamic playmaking ability, which means he doesn’t even need to be deployed in a traditional RB role to wreak havoc. Expect new OC Matt Canada to move CEH all over the field in various formations and positions to try and find a way to get the ball into the diminutive back’s hands. I can see him being the type of player that touches the ball five times a game, but winds up with 100+ yards of offense because he’s liable to rip one off for a huge play. He can be a threat as your jet sweeper, take carries out of the backfield, line up in the screen game, et al. And that’s without mentioning what a factor he will be in the return games, where he should provide an immediate boost.
There’s no slow playing this freshman. CEH will see the field and see it a lot in 2017. It’s possible LSU found the next great RB in the line of succession.
High End: All-American, top-three round draft pick
Low End: Injury plagued and never a consistent contributor
Realistic: All-SEC back and explosive playmaking threat.