D.J. Uiagalelei experienced a huge culture shock when he first stepped onto Clemson’s campus as a high school athlete. The first thing he noticed was a plethora of trees and greenery that ran contrary to the skyscrapers and concrete one grows accustomed to in Southern California.
But it was his first experience of a Clemson game and witnessing a Saturday in the south that lured the highly touted prospect out of the grasp of USC and other schools on the west coast.
The passion and enthusiasm he witnessed at his first game ultimately led Uiagalelei to pack up his life in Southern California and move across the country to play college football on the biggest stage.
“I remember when I came to my first Clemson game, I saw people tailgating from 20 minutes away on the road until I got to Clemson, and it was all shut down,” Uiagalelei said at the ACC Kickoff on Thursday. “We have 85,000 in the stadium and I think there’s like 50,000 people outside just tailgating and there’s only like 10,000 people in the city. I’ve never seen nothing like that in my life and it just opened my eyes like wow this is amazing.”
Several big-time quarterbacks ventured cross country from California in the last couple of years to some for a shot at playing on a bigger stage. Alabama starter Bryce Young, Georgia starter J.T. Daniels and Ohio State starter C.J. Stroud all left the west coast to play for teams that have a better shot at reaching the College Football Playoff. In fact those three quarterbacks grew up in about a 60-mile radius from Uiagalelei.
Uiagalelei did not try and speak for those other players but know the reason he came to Clemson. The sophomore wanted to win a national championship.
“I’m not really sure, I know why I came out here was to be able to compete for a national championship every single year,” Uiagalelei said. “I feel like Clemson was the best opportunity for me.”
The sophomore quarterback feels that football on the east coast and in the south is completely different than in the west coast where there are millions of people and millions of opportunities to find other activities on Saturdays in the fall.
“It’s such a different dynamic here in the south I think it’s because in southern California it’s huge in LA there are millions of people and millions of other things to do in California,” Uiagalelei said.
Last season Uiagalelei started a pair of games at Notre Dame and at Memorial Stadium against Boston College. He showed out while Trevor Lawrence missed time due to virus protocols, but it happened in front of restricted crowds and a limited gameday experience.
Now the California kid gets a chance to play in front of packed crowds and is excited to participate in the pageantry and tradition typically associated with a game day in Clemson.
“I think it’s definitely cool we didn’t get to have a full stadium at full capacity coming into. This year will be different,” Uiagalelei said. “I’m really excited to do my first Tiger Walk and run down the hill with all the fans in the stadium. This is what I came to Clemson for so I’m super excited to be able to do this.”