In a long line of those who are growing exasperated by the lack of consistent production from Clemson’s offense this season, the person at the controls might be at the front of it.
“It’s definitely frustrating,” quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei said. “On offense, you want to be able to score points and to the standard we’ve held at Clemson. The Clemson offense has put up massive amounts of yards and massive amount of points.”
That’s largely been the case in recent years. Just last season, with Trevor Lawrence running the show, Clemson ranked in the top 10 nationally in most offensive categories, including yards and points. This year’s version of the Tigers has been on the opposite end of that spectrum through three games with points (22 per game) and chunk plays (322 yards per game) being hard to come by.
Quarterbacks are renowned for getting perhaps too much credit when things are going well offensively and too much blame when they’re not. Going through his first season as Lawrence’s successor, Uiagalelei certainly hasn’t been immune to the latter.
“I think everybody likes the backup quarterback or maybe even the backup offensive coordinator, whoever that may be,” offensive coordinator Tony Elliott half-joked.
But there is a specific fundamental the Tigers’ sophomore signal caller is working on to do his part in trying to help the offense find more consistent footing. His footwork in the pocket, particularly when winding up for longer throws, continues to be a work in progress.
“Sometimes I get a little bit antsy, my feet start going erratic and I kind of don’t translate the feet over when I go from one read to the other,” Uiagalelei said. “I just move my eyes instead of moving my feet as well and getting my feet over. That’s definitely one thing is making sure all my footwork is right every single play.”
After completing just 54% of his passes in the first two games, Uiagalelei went 18 of 25 passing in Clemson’s 14-8 win over Georgia Tech on Saturday for his most efficient performance through the air so far. With the Yellow Jackets routinely dropping multiple defenders deep in coverage, Uiagalelei was largely forced to go underneath, averaging just 7 yards per completion with his longest going for 17 yards on Kobe Pace’s catch and run out of the backfield during the first half.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t chances for Uiagalelei to turn in a few more explosive plays through the air. Elliott and head coach Dabo Swinney cited three specific incompletions that came on attempts longer than 10 yards that were there for the taking had the throws been more accurate.
He threw wide of Joseph Ngata on a combination of seam and post routes on third-and-11 early in the first quarter. He did the same on a corner route. Later in the first half, Uiagalelei targeted Ngata with a back-shoulder throw down the sideline but threw it flat-footed. The ball bounced off Ngata’s shoe.
“I don’t know if there was miscommunication on some of the routes, but I know the one at Ngata’s feet was just a bad throw,” Uiagalelei said. “I just missed that one. I’ve got to give him a better ball so he can make a better play for it.”
Uiagalelei’s arm talent rivals any quarterback Clemson has had during the Swinney era in terms of pure strength, which can lend itself to lackadaisical fundamentals at times. Elliott said throwing off his back foot is something that’s always been part of Uiagalelei’s game — a fundamental component that is among the biggest points of emphasis for Elliott and Uiagalelei’s position coach, Brandon Streeter.
“Just making sure that he’s not falling away and not opening his shoulder too much,” Elliott said. “Throwing off his heels. Those are some of the things there. And in fairness to him, we’ve got to give him more opportunities down the field to work on his timing. And then also not staying in the pocket too long. Sometimes you’ve got to pull it down, take off and scramble, especially when you’re playing defenses that are dropping eight into coverage.”
Clemson’s longest completion of the season is Ngata’s 38-yarder against Georgia in the opener, which also came on a shorter route Ngata turned into a big gainer after the catch. Asked if attempting more passes down the field would help his accuracy and rhythm, Uiagalelei didn’t commit.
“Whatever Coach Elliott wants to call, I’m ready to do whatever,” he said.
But Uiagalelei is firm in his belief that he and the whole offense are closer than not to breaking out.
“It’s going to eventually come,” Uiagalelei said. “Just got to keep working and keeping following the plan, trusting the process. Rome wasn’t built in a day. It took a long time to build Rome, so we’ve just got to continue to keep going.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!