Three years ago, LSU made a late push to sign a certain running back from Louisiana.

He was a 4-star recruit who had decommitted from Texas A&M before the start of his senior season. It came down to in-state LSU, Clemson and Tennessee. That announcement was scheduled before what was supposed to be an official visit to Baton Rouge.

But ultimately, Travis Etienne canceled his visit to LSU and chose Clemson.

And as many LSU fans were reminded this week, he had some words at his announcement that made the recruiting loss sting a little more. Etienne called Clemson “the real Death Valley” and he said something that looking back, is loaded with irony.

Here’s an interesting excerpt from the Baton Rouge Advocate story after Etienne committed to Clemson:

LSU’s pitch to Etienne made leaving his home state a difficult decision, he said, but an opportunity to play for a title-winning team stood out.

“With that being said, (Clemson is) going to hold you to a higher standard,” Etienne said.

LSU has just one running back committed to its 2017 class: Catholic High three-star prospect Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

After whiffing on Etienne, Edwards-Helaire was the lone running back to sign with LSU in that 2017 class. Edwards-Helaire had been committed to LSU since February 2016, and he remained committed to the Tigers even after Les Miles was fired. But the 5-8 recruit from Baton Rouge was criticized for being too small not being big enough to be an SEC running back.

So how fitting it is that 3 years later, Edwards-Helaire will be the 1st-team All-SEC back for LSU in a national championship … and his counterpart will be Etienne, AKA the guy who said Clemson was on a different level from LSU and who some believed was on a different SEC-ready level from Edwards-Helaire.

Extra motivation? I’d say so.

How could Edwards-Helaire not feel like a consolation prize? Had LSU seen him as a major get, the urgency to make a late push for Etienne wouldn’t have been so strong. But it was, and 3 years later, we can tell that it was for good reason. The list of backs who have been better than Etienne since the start of 2018 isn’t long. In fact, it’s probably just Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, and even that’s debatable.

Etienne has been everything that LSU coaches and fans hoped he’d be, but in a different Death Valley. He plays all 3 downs, he breaks long runs loose and he can take over in the passing game.

Wait a minute. Does that sound familiar? It should because it’s exactly what Edwards-Helaire has been for LSU this year.

It’s no secret that Edwards-Helaire essentially spent the entire season playing like the back who was told he wasn’t good enough (even his mom said she thought he was too small). The way he finishes runs makes it look like his doubters are always on his mind. When it was assumed he wasn’t playing in the Peach Bowl because of his hamstring injury, Edwards-Helaire did this on LSU’s first possession:

While that run certainly quieted speculation about his hamstring, it was also 1 of 2 carries that Edwards-Helaire got in the Peach Bowl. LSU didn’t need him to blow out Oklahoma. The Tigers elected to preserve him for Clemson, which Edwards-Helaire said he’ll be “110%” for.

Yeah, I can understand why he’ll have a little extra juice for that.

And to be fair, the same could be said for Etienne, whose family has reportedly been getting threats from LSU fans leading up to the title game. He was the one who couldn’t attract LSU until late in the recruiting cycle. Ed Orgeron, who shed his interim tag after the 2016 season, was too late to the party to land the in-state back. Orgeron said that every time he sees Etienne having success he’s “sick to his stomach.”

And to be clear, that’s not because Orgeron feels like Edwards-Helaire isn’t on Etienne’s level. But Etienne is the 2-time ACC Player of the Year, and over the course of the past 2 years, he’s been the more decorated player. That’s understandable. His raw numbers are better this year, too.

Actually, though, look at their numbers against Power 5 opponents this year and it’s certainly more comparable than the average fan might think:

2019 vs. P5
Rushing yards
Scrimmage yards
Total TDs
Top 20 defenses

I included that last metric because I think that context is important. That’s not to say that Etienne hasn’t played any good defenses, but Edwards-Helaire certainly faced more. He has been at his best during LSU’s best games, too. He exceeded 115 scrimmage yards in all 4 of those matchups and averaged 155 yards. That includes the Alabama game in which Edwards-Helaire racked up 180 scrimmage yards and 4 touchdowns (he was the first player to do that against Nick Saban since he arrived in Tuscaloosa).

That was his real coming out party, where he earned the reputation as a guy who just refused to go down:

Yeah, that’s the dude who squatted 700 pounds. Stunning, I know.

That game — and this season really — put Edwards-Helaire on the map. That map extends beyond the hometown team who was eager to add Etienne late in the recruiting cycle.

This is a chance for Edwards-Helaire to show plenty of next-level eyes that he can once again overcome his smaller frame. No matter how he plays, the junior will have a decision to make after the national championship.

And if he does leave early for the NFL after helping LSU clinch a title, well, that’s gotta be a better ending than he ever could’ve imagined 3 years ago.