D.J. Uiagalelei isn’t filling just anybody’s shoes as the new triggerman for Clemson’s offense.
His predecessor at quarterback was one of the best the program has ever seen. Trevor Lawrence turned out to be the three-year player most expected him to be at the collegiate level, going 34-2 as a starter while leading the Tigers to three ACC championships, the same number of College Football Playoff appearances and a national championship before becoming Clemson’s first-ever No. 1 overall draft pick earlier this year.
Following that could easily be a daunting task for any quarterback. And at a program like Clemson, where six straight CFP appearances has set a standard of being elite, it could turn into a situation where the next guy presses and tries to do too much in an effort to help the program maintain that level of success.
Yet that’s not something Uiagalelei’s coaches or teammates are all that worried about when it comes to Lawrence’s successor.
“He’s not really an overwhelmed type of kid,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “He may be, but you don’t see it. He’s like that duck on a pond. He’s like that all the time. I don’t worry about him.”
Part of Swinney’s confidence in his sophomore signal caller stems from the fact that, much like Lawrence dealt with before he arrived at Clemson, Uiagalelei knows a thing or two about great expectations. Uiagalelei may not have been the nation’s top recruit coming out of high school like Lawrence, but he wasn’t far behind.
Uiagalelei was rated the No. 10 prospect nationally and the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2020 recruiting cycle, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings. A California native, he played his high school ball in the glow of one of the country’s largest media markets at St. John Bosco in suburban Los Angeles.
“He’s a very confident kid and has been for a long time,” Swinney said. “A lot like Trevor, he’s been in the spotlight for a long time. The big stage of high school football, TV, expectations. I mean, he’s been there.”
And thanks to what turned out to be a blessing in disguise in terms of Uiagalelei’s development, that includes the collegiate level, too.
Uiagalelei was forced into the starting lineup when COVID-19 protocols kept Lawrence out of games against Boston College and Notre Dame during the regular season. As impressive as it was for Uiagalelei to help the Tigers rally from an 18-point deficit in a 34-28 home win over the Eagles, he put himself squarely on the national radar with his performance under the bright lights of Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana, the following week, throwing for a career-high 423 yards on just 29 completions and accounting for three scores in a 47-40 overtime loss.
“I also have some confidence in what I saw at Notre Dame last year,” Swinney said with a smile.
In the 10 games he played last season, Uiagalelei threw five touchdowns and no interceptions. His performance, particularly on the bigger stages, seemed to support the working theory his coaches and teammates have that rattling the youngster is much easier said than done.
“Very Cali. Kind of a low-key, chill guy,” senior safety Nolan Turner said. “Definitely always has a composure about him. Just love his poise and kind of what he brings to the offense from a leadership standpoint.”
When he wasn’t playing, Uiagalelei had the benefit of watching and learning from Lawrence for a year. He’s experienced what it’s like to prepare and game plan, and he’s benefited from a year in a college strength and conditioning program, which Swinney said has helped Uiagalelei, who weighed in at 247 pounds at the start of fall camp, improve his strength.
It’s all added to the confidence the Tigers have in a signal caller that’s about as calm and collected as they come.
“His whole mindset is different,” Swinney said. “His maturity, his leadership role, all those things. I’ve seen him assert himself a lot better.
“He’s excited about the opportunity, and we are, too.”