This time last year, D.J. Uiagalelei had just enrolled at Clemson and was gearing up for spring practice. Of course, no one knew at the time a global pandemic was about to take place and the sports world that we all knew was about to change.
For freshman like Uiagalelei, his preparation for the 2020 football season was cut short. The second half of spring practice was canceled, and college athletes went another 10 weeks before they could get back to training.
When you are a Division I college football player, those 10 weeks can be detrimental to a player’s progression, especially a true freshman who is playing the most pressured-filled positions on his team for one of the elite programs in the game.
That was the hand Uiagalelei was dealt last spring and summer. To top it off, he got banged up during the season and was not playing at a hundred percent when news came down that starter, and Heisman Trophy runner-up, Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19 on Oct. 29.
But none of that stopped Uiagalelei. Even though he was hurting, Clemson fans got a glimpse of what the future might hold with Uiagalelei at quarterback.
The true freshman played very well in the two games Lawrence missed, leading the Tigers to the greatest come-from-behind victory at Death Valley in school history, as he rallied Clemson from an 18-point deficit to beat Boston College, 34-28 on Oct. 31.
A week later, even in a loss to Notre Dame in South Bend, he played great, throwing for 439 yards, the most ever against an Irish defense. He nearly willed an outmanned Clemson team to victory in a double-overtime defeat.
“That is going to pay huge dividends for him this year and next year,” Clemson head coach Swinney said recently. “I mean just the confidence he will have… You have a guy that get it done.”
In his two starts, Uiagalelei played nearly flawless, completing 59-of-85 passes (69.4 percent) for 781 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also ran for two scores, including a 30-yard touchdown run against Boston College.
“And certainly, for next year, having gone on the road and started in a top 5 matchup, GameDay and all of those things against a great opponent. He not only played well, he played amazing,” Swinney said. “Certainly, there are things we will coach him on. But, I mean, he threw for more yards than any quarterback in history to throw on Notre Dame.
“Notre Dame has been playing a lot of football for a long time and has played a lot of great quarterbacks, so that is pretty special what he has been able to do from that standpoint. He found a way to give us a chance to be successful and win the game.”
Uiagalelei finished his first year at Clemson completing 78 of his 117 attempts (66.7 percent) for 914 yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions. He also added 60 rushing yards and scored four times in the 10 games he played in.