Editor's note: This article was first published on January 11.
NEW ORLEANS — Clyde Edwards-Helaire can smile about it now. About the coaches who thought he was far too small to play running back. About the recruiting rankings that never gave him a fair shake, largely because of one measurement. About the fact that for much of his life, "on a day-to-day basis," he recalls, Edwards-Helaire has tried to convince the world that his stature would never define him. If only more people listened.
"They just always seem to have a problem with height, which is something I don't understand," he says. "Being a running back, I've never seen a hole open vertically."
On his official bio, Edwards-Helaire is listed at 5'8" and 209 pounds. The weight seems about right given his tree-trunk thighs that can squat more than 600 pounds. The height feels, well, mildly overstated.
Whether he's actually as tall as his listed height, however, is of no importance as LSU prepares to face Clemson in Monday's national championship game with its star running back healthy and hungry as usual. His height, whatever it might be, has guided the junior to this point. And as the season has developed, it has become increasingly more obvious how little it means.
"A lot of respect for him," says Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "He's a different dude. For us, just watching them, I think he's the heart and soul of their whole offense."
This season, operating in the shadow of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Joe Burrow along with a stable of wideouts who have produced eye-popping numbers, Edwards-Helaire has quietly thrived.
Nothing about his game, with the exception of his height, is understated. His speed. His power. His wiggle. His bowling ball-like running style. His ability to catch the football, perhaps his most meaningful attribute. His ability to contribute on any down at any point on the field.
"I feel like I'm the miniature Swiss Army knife," Edwards-Helaire says. "Whatever you need me to do, I'm there—no matter the situation, in life or in football."
Statically, the running back has been excellent. Edwards-Helaire averaged 6.6 yards per carry this season. He's totaled 1,304 rushing yards, third in the SEC. He's scored 17 touchdowns. He also caught 50 passes for 399 yards.
"Clyde's special," says LSU offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger. "Defenses have tried to put linebackers on him, and they can't cover him. Others have brought a free safety down, and he can't cover him. He's a weapon that they have to pay attention to. He's a difference-maker."
His most impactful performance came against the program that has largely tormented LSU over the past decade. While Alabama has routinely neutralized opposing running backs since Nick Saban's 2007 arrival, Edwards-Helaire is a glaring outlier.
His 180 yards from scrimmage and four touchdowns were at the epicenter of the team's 46-41 victory in Tuscaloosa in the fall. Edwards-Helaire also became the first player to score four touchdowns from scrimmage against Saban's team during the coach's time at Alabama.
That performance, while magnified given the stakes, largely mirrors the impact he has had all season.
"He's a monster," says Clemson safety Tanner Muse. "He's a total package for a running back."
For years, however, not everyone thought his wealth of abilities would translate to this level. Although it was clear Edwards-Helaire was gifted when he starred at Catholic High School in Baton Rouge, a short trip up the road from the university he committed to, there was always a ceiling on his potential.
Edwards-Helaire was rated a 3-star running back by 247Sports' composite ranking and the 15th-best player in Louisiana, even if his performances suggested otherwise.
"I would go to camps and test off the walls," Edwards-Helaire says. "I would do everything I needed to do, and then someone would write that everything was amazing about me except my stature. They have all these rankings, and I knew ultimately my height was why I wasn't at the top. It was simple as that."
Although Edwards-Helaire was originally recruited by ex-LSU head coach Les Miles, Ed Orgeron was interested in the running back the moment he took over in 2016.
Orgeron likens Edwards-Helaire's build and running style to those of former NFL running back Maurice Jones-Drew—a back who, despite being listed at only 5'7", was successful both in college and the NFL.
"Clyde walks into a room, and he's 6'4" and 270 pounds," Orgeron says. "That's the kind of persona he has. And listening to what I hear from other coaches, he's the hardest guy to game-plan because he's a receiver in the backfield, but he's also a great running back."
Against Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl, Edwards-Helaire played despite injuring his hamstring in practice in the lead-up to the College Football Playoff semifinal. Although he carried the ball only two times for 14 yards—a stat line that was shortened largely because of the lopsided score early on—it was surprising he suited up at all.
With an extended period between the semifinals and the national championship game, Edwards-Helaire says his hamstring is fully healed and his body is ready for its normal, extended workload.
"We were able to get through the last game without him, but we wouldn't be able to win this game without him," says Burrow. "He's a special player. Not a lot of people can do what he does."
Against Clemson, LSU will need Edwards-Helaire to be himself. To catch passes. To run through tackles. To extend drives and keep the ball out of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence's hands.
While Burrow is the face of a storybook season that could culminate in a victory a little more than hour's drive from the LSU campus—with purple and gold poised to take over the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in what might amount to a modified LSU home game—Edwards-Helaire will play his part.
Long dead are the questions about his size. But the motivation—"the flame that was lit," as he calls it—still glows. It's a flame that has brought him here, to the cusp of a moment he dreamed about long before it was ever this close.
He has thought about basking in the confetti as it rains down—letting it wash over him as his teammates and coaches embrace one another on the field. He has wondered just how heavy the trophy would feel in his hands and considered the response he would receive after lifting it to the sky for the crowd to see.
He has even thought about crowd surfing down Bourbon Street—being passed from one jubilant LSU fan to the next as they celebrate the greatest night in the program's history.
The thought of it all, knowing just how much work is still ahead, makes him smile again. And given what it's taken to arrive here, it's not hard to see why.