Clemson’s new starting quarterback, DJ Uiagalelei, will always draw comparisons to his predecessor, Trevor Lawrence.
Lawrence, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, showed greatness during his three years as a Tiger from 2018-20. And in a much smaller sample size, Uiagalelei also flashed greatness while filling in for Lawrence as a true freshman last season and showed he has the chance to be the next special Clemson QB.
“I think just one, his timing showed up. I think also his command of the offense,” ACC Network analyst EJ Manuel said of Uiagalelei on Wednesday during the network’s coverage of the ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte. “Those are the things that you don’t normally see from a freshman quarterback, but DJ was able to implement himself right into the offense.”
Stepping in for Lawrence after he was sidelined by COVID-19, Uiagalelei was ultra-impressive in his two starts last season, when he led Clemson to the largest comeback in Memorial Stadium history in his first career start vs. Boston College on Oct. 31 and a week later, passed for 439 yards at Notre Dame – the most yards ever thrown against the Irish by an opposing quarterback. He finished his freshman campaign with 914 yards and five touchdowns against no interceptions across 10 games.
“We saw consistency,” Manuel said. “I think when you have a true freshman come in and then not only are you filling in for a quarterback, you’re filling in for Trevor Lawrence, on the top team in the country, and I thought he did an excellent job, especially considering the situation on the road at Notre Dame. Obviously handled a tough game vs. BC, because BC punched them in the mouth in that first half of that football game. It wasn’t like it was a layup for him. So, he came in there and he made great throws.”
As effective as Lawrence was running the football for the Tigers – he rushed for 943 yards and 18 touchdowns across three seasons – Manuel believes Uiagalelei can be an even better weapon for Clemson in the ground game thanks to his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame and the power that comes with his physical attributes.
“I think the edge that he’s going to have over Trevor – he’s 250,” Manuel said. “So, you talk about the power run game, running between the tackles, possibly running over linebackers … DJ could probably put his shoulder down and get those extra yards.”
What impresses Manuel even more about Uiagalelei, though, is his efficiency in the red zone.
“I don’t know the exact stat, but I know it jumped out to me,” he said. “When you see him get down in the red zone … Young quarterbacks, they struggle there. They have a hard time understanding OK, the pressures are different, the coverages are different, the alignments of the defensive line, the checks that you have to make are completely different versus being out in the field. To me, DJ did a great job in the red zone. I think there was a pass that stands out to Amari Rodgers. He fired a back-shoulder fade to him. His timing was perfect, his footwork was in line. To me, I think that’s where he’s going to have that step ahead.”
There’s no doubt that Lawrence, the winningest starting quarterback in Clemson history who led the Tigers to a national title as a true freshman in 2018, will be difficult to replace.
But Clemson couldn’t ask for a better replacement than Uiagalelei, who proved he is up to the task in limited playing time last season and should benefit from the experience he gained as a true freshman, not to mention all of the offseason first-team reps that will be under his belt when Clemson kicks off the season against Georgia on Sept. 4 in Charlotte.
“You talk about getting a full spring and now a full training camp, it’s going to be scary to [see] what DJ Uiagalelei can be, considering he’s also taking over for Trevor Lawrence, the No. 1 overall draft pick,” Manuel said. “So, I think DJ’s kind of in that same light.”
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