TALLAHASSEE — When Mario Edwards Jr. arrived at Tropicana Field for the Under Armour All-America Game in January 2012, he was a star among stars.
The high school pass rusher from Denton, Texas, was ESPN's top recruit in the country, a consensus five-star talent who drew raves on the national telecast and left recruiting gurus gushing.
When he arrived at Florida State a few months later, he was something else: too heavy. Coaches said the jewel of ESPN's second-ranked recruiting class would be redshirted.
"I put myself behind the 8-ball coming in overweight," Edwards said after FSU's 63-0 win over Maryland on Oct. 5.
That dose of humility was enough to help the defensive end slim down before his sophomore year, making him a key player to watch when the No. 5 Seminoles travel to No. 3 Clemson on Saturday.
"He's a big part of our defense," linebacker Christian Jones said. "We know he's capable of making big plays when he wants to."
Edwards was listed as low as 250 pounds and as high as 297 as a high school All-American. By the time he got to Tallahassee, he topped 310.
His size sapped some of his speed. So FSU told Edwards — the son of the former Buc and FSU cornerback — that he'd likely ride the bench during his freshman season. He didn't even dress out for the Seminoles' 2012 opener against Murray State.
"Last year was definitely hard," Edwards said. "I was really cutting myself short."
But injuries to defensive ends Brandon Jenkins and Tank Carradine forced Edwards into a starting role before the ACC title game. He slimmed down to 282 pounds and finished his true freshman season with 17 tackles (2.5 for a loss) and 1.5 sacks.
Edwards knew he'd have to trim his 6-foot-3 frame even more to reach his potential as a sophomore. He added more cardio to his workouts during the offseason. Salads and grilled proteins replaced fried food and late-night snacks.
The result: FSU lists Edwards at a lean but powerful 277 pounds. When FSU linebacker Telvin Smith saw a picture of Edwards from last spring, he hardly recognized him.
"Now he's able to move and maneuver with his weight," Smith said. "That's just tremendous."
Edwards said his stamina has improved, so he can push harder every snap while taking fewer plays off. He recorded eight tackles (one for a loss) in the Seminoles' first two games before a hand injury sidelined him against Bethune-Cookman and Boston College.
He returned against Maryland and didn't record a statistic but had several quarterback pressures.
"He's out there playing with one hand," Jones said, "and he's still out there making plays."
But when Edwards and the 'Noles stifled the conference's then-leader in total offense two weeks ago, they had some help. Edwards said Maryland's linemen telegraphed plays with their feet: Squared feet meant a run, while a wide stance meant a pass.
Shutting out Clemson will be much tougher. Heisman hopeful Tajh Boyd is 12th in the country in total offense (328 yards per game) for a Tigers offense averaging 41 points.
Edwards expects his hand to be almost back to normal by Saturday, when he'll start at right defensive end and try to corral one of the country's top dual-threat quarterbacks.
"He's always been one of those guys who was talented athletically," Jones said. "We knew he had the ability. But I think he's able to lock in more this year and be mentally ready."
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.