D.J. Uiagalelei aced his first career start against Boston College last Saturday at Death Valley, completing 30 of his 41 passes for 342 yards, throwing for two touchdowns and rushing for another score while helping the Tigers rally from an 18-point first half deficit to beat the Eagles.
But as well as the talented true freshman quarterback performed in that contest, his first career road start at Notre Dame in South Bend on Saturday night will present a more difficult test, as Uiagalelei is tasked with facing a Fighting Irish defense that ranks fifth nationally in scoring defense (10.3 points per game allowed).
Notre Dame’s secondary is holding opponents to a completion percentage of about 52 percent on average, while no offense has passed for more than 260 yards against the Irish this season.
ESPN college football analyst David Pollack likes Uiagalelei’s physical presence and the poise he displayed against Boston College but says he will have to work hard for everything he gets against the Notre Dame defense.
“He is poised, which is so cool to see from a young fella,” Pollack said Friday during ESPN’s College Football Live show. “Remember dude, he’s 6-5, 250. This ain’t no small fry, this is an adult. So, tackling him is a problem when you get there. Boston College did a great job limiting (Travis) Etienne, shutting him down. But, on the other hand, this ain’t Boston College’s defense. This Notre Dame defense flies around, they’re physical, they’re tough, they’re disciplined. I love this unit. They’re not going to give you much, so you’re going to have to earn it time and time again.”
Pollack expects Uiagalelei to use his legs frequently to try to pick up yards against a Notre Dame defense that is yielding only 267.2 yards per game – eighth best in the FBS – and has lockdown-caliber defensive backs in the secondary that will force him to fit balls into tight windows.
“These are going to have to be tough throws,” Pollack said. “By the way, Clemson’s playmakers are going to have to step up and play better on the outside, run the right routes all the time, catch 50-50 balls. But I think you get a steady dose of D.J.’s feet. I think running the football, I think he’s going to get 10, 15 carries easy in this game, because Clemson’s going to have to, to move the football consistently.”
Former UCLA and NFL head coach, and current ESPN college football analyst Jim Mora anticipates Notre Dame mixing up its formations and coverages in an attempt to confuse Uiagalelei, whom Mora believes has what it takes to be successful against whatever the Irish throw at him.
“He’s going to have to face a defense here that’s going to give him different looks,” Mora said on College Football Live. “They’re going to disguise, make him make decisions with the ball in his hands. He’s going to have better talent that he’s got to beat on the outside, just means tighter windows.
“But I just think that this guy has the ‘it’ factor. I’ve watched him a long time and I think he’s a really special player. I think we’ll see early how he handles this moment.”
Mora, who has followed Uiagalelei closely dating back to his prep days at St. John Bosco in California, gave the former five-star prospect high marks for his confidence, decision-making and demeanor on the field.
“When I look at Uiagalelei – and I’ve seen him not only Saturday, but through his high school career – I see a young man who’s very decisive, and those decisive decisions are good decisions,” Mora said. “I think that he’s a confident, poised kid. He’s got a great demeanor out there. I think that come-from-behind victory against Boston College was huge for that confidence, not only himself but his teammates in him. I saw a guy that threw the ball with good accuracy but can improve there, can lead his receivers the right way, get yards catch.”
Another championship season is underway for the Tigers. It’s time to gear up for another year of Clemson football.
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