Expectations are high for D.J. Uiagalelei.
That’s part of the gig when taking over as the starting quarterback for one of college football’s premier programs, even when you’re succeeding the No. 1 draft pick. While the list isn’t as long as Trevor Lawrence’s at this point of his career, Uiagalelei’s credentials have further fueled them.
The Tigers’ signal caller is a former five-star recruit himself and excelled in a pair of unexpected spot starts last season as a true freshman. He threw for more than 700 yards against Boston College and Notre Dame during the regular season and finished the year completing 67% of his passes.
Uiagalelei is completing passes at just a 54% clip with more interceptions (2) than touchdown passes (1) through Clemson’s first two games. He also ran for a pair of scores in the Tigers’ 49-3 win over South Carolina State on Saturday, but the relatively slow start through the air has raised questions from media and fans alike regarding Uiagalelei’s performance.
As much praise as his quarterback got last season, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney knows Uiagalelei will also have his critics. Swinney said that’s the biggest challenge for Uiagelelei as he goes through his first season as the new face of Clemson’s offense.
“It just comes with the territory,” Swinney said. “These guys aren’t robots. This isn’t a video game. These are young human beings that are imperfect, and this is a big transition.
“I think just the outside noise, good and bad. The criticism and the praise that comes with a quarterback at a place like Clemson, I think that’s probably the biggest thing is learning how to manage all of that stuff that really doesn’t matter and staying focused on what you control.”
Uiagalelei has had his moments. After a first half to forget against Georgia in the Tigers’ 10-3 season-opening loss, Uiagalelei avoided the Bulldogs’ relentless pass rush long enough to go 9 of 16 for 103 of his 178 passing yards in the second half and led Clemson’s lone scoring drive in the fourth quarter. On Saturday, Uiagalelei finished 14 of 24 through the air and accounted for three touchdowns before taking a seat early in the third quarter.
There were some misfires, too. He threw high of a wide-open Justyn Ross in the end zone and did the same on a screen pass later in the first half to Joseph Ngata, resulting in an interception. There was also a moment early in the second quarter that Swinney said will serve as a teaching moment for a quarterback still learning with just four starts under his belt.
With Clemson’s offense facing third-and-7 backed up at its own 6-yard line, Uiagalelei took the snap in the end zone and rolled to his right. Running back Kobe Pace was late in picking up the blitzer off the edge, but instead of stepping inside the block or throwing the ball away under pressure, Uiagalelei kept backing up and floated a pass off his back foot toward E.J. Williams that was in the air long enough for South Carolina State safety Jaylen Evans to track it.
The only reason it wasn’t intercepted is because Evans dropped the ball.
“Really bad decision. Should’ve been intercepted,” Swinney said. “So, again, that’s just a young guy trying to do too much. There’s nothing wrong with punting the football. You’re backed up. What you don’t want to do is put your defense in a bad spot and make a bad decision, and that is what that was.”
Outside of that decision and the errant pick, Swinney said Uiagalelei’s performance was “excellent.” As for Uiagalelei’s accuracy and decision-making, Swinney voiced optimism that both will improve with more experience and exposure.
With Clemson’s ACC opener against Georgia Tech looming Saturday, Swinney said he has his reasons as to why he’s confident his cannon-armed quarterback will improve on what he’s done so far this season.
“First of all, he’s incredibly talented. As talented as we’ve had,” Swinney said. “Secondly, he cares. It’s very important to him, and he’s coachable. When you’ve got that combination, you’re going to get better.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!