A closer look: D.J. Uiagalelei vs. J.T. Daniels

A closer look: D.J. Uiagalelei vs. J.T. Daniels

Football

A closer look: D.J. Uiagalelei vs. J.T. Daniels

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With Clemson’s mammoth opener against Georgia just a week away, The Clemson Insider is taking a closer look at some of the position matchups that could go a long way in determining the outcome of that Sept. 4 clash at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte.

Next up is Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei against Georgia quarterback J.T. Daniels. TCI previously analyzed matchups between the Tigers’ offensive line and the Bulldogs’ defensive front (and vice versa), Clemson’s receivers against Georgia’s secondary and Clemson’s linebackers against the Bulldogs’ tight ends and running backs.

Uiagaleleli’s career stats (10 games, 2 starts): 78 of 117, 914 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INT; 28 rush, 60 yards, 4 TDs

Trevor Lawrence’s absence from the starting lineup was never part of the plan for Clemson’s offense last season, but Lawrence’s brief bout with COVID-19 turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Tigers’ future at quarterback. 

It got Uiagalelei his first two career starts against Boston College and Notre Dame during the regular season. And Uiagalelei wasn’t just a game manager either time.

He helped the Tigers dig out of an 18-point hole at home against Boston College in a 34-28 win before introducing himself to the college football world with a 439-yard, two-touchdown passing performance in Clemson’s double-overtime loss to a top-5 Notre Dame team on the road. Uiagalelei’s prolific showing last season, though in a small sample size, has created Heisman Trophy chatter for the sophomore heading into this season.

The physical talent is obvious. Not only does Uiagalelei have ideal size for the position, but the 6-foot-4, 247-pounder has a proverbial rocket attached to his right shoulder, which allows him to fit the kinds of passes into tighter windows that many other signal callers simply can’t make. And while Clemson has to be careful about exposing him to too many extra hits, he’s got the kind of bulk and athleticism that can be used in the power running game, something the Tigers haven’t consistently had at the quarterback position since Tahj Boyd was behind center.

By all accounts, Uiagalelei has the cool, calm demeanor to go with his physical talent. He’s a former five-star recruit who played his high school football in the Los Angeles media market (St. John Bosco), so, as Clemson coach Dabo Swinney put it earlier this month, Uiagalelei is used to being in the spotlight.

He’ll be tested as he plays more games — and particularly against more high-caliber opponents like this one — but it’s apparent plenty of folks inside and outside of the program are more than confident in what Clemson has in Lawrence’s successor.

Daniels’ career stats (16, 16): 321 of 516, 4,118 yards, 25 TDs, 13 INT; 0 rush TDs

If there’s one aspect where Daniels has the edge on Uiagalelei, it’s experience.

A fourth-year junior, Daniels has started every game he’s played the last three seasons, the last four coming at Georgia a season. But the California native got his collegiate career started at USC, where he was the Trojans’ starter as a true freshman in 2018 before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in USC’s opener in 2019 and eventually transferring.

Daniels grabbed the starting role for the Bulldogs late last season. With 13 interceptions in 16 games, he’s been prone to questionable decision-making at times, though Daniels cut down on his turnovers last season. He threw 10 touchdowns against just two picks and capped the season with 392 passing yards and a touchdown in the Bulldogs’ Peach Bowl win over Cincinnati, a top-10 defense nationally.

Daniels is also a native West Coaster who isn’t a stranger to high expectations. He played his prep ball at California powerhouse Mater Dei — former Heisman Trophy winner Matt Leinart and Matt Barkely, another former USC quarterback, also played there — and was ranked by the 247Sports Composite as the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the 2018 recruiting cycle. He finished his high school career with more than 20,000 passing yards, so talent isn’t an issue for either quarterback in this one.

The matchup

This obviously won’t be a one-on-one matchup in a literal sense. Each quarterback’s job will get easier or harder depending on the kind of help he’s getting around him, but considering the two defenses playing in this game — particularly up front — it’s not hard to envision a scenario where each team simply needs its signal caller to go win the game.

Daniels’ career rushing yardage is in the red — most of that coming on sacks — so he’s a pocket passer in the truest sense of the phrase. Uiagalelei, on the other hand, is a more mobile signal caller that will inflict most of his damage on opposing defenses with his arm but can also do so with his legs.

That’s something to keep in mind considering the kind of pressure both of these defenses are capable of creating. Both quarterbacks have played on big stages before, so neither one figures to be overwhelmed by the moment. But which one can go make more plays, particularly when things break down around them?

It may be oversimplifying, but in a game that should be tightly contested throughout, whichever quarterback can deliver in the clutch more often and limit the mistakes may ultimately make the difference.

Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!

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