D.J. Uiagalelei continues to be his biggest critic even when it’s not necessarily warranted.
Take the final play of Clemson’s double-overtime loss at North Carolina State for example. Uiagalelei took the fourth-down snap and lofted a pass toward Justyn Ross streaking down the sideline. This one wasn’t high, wide or hot like plenty of his passes have been this season. It was on a nearly perfect trajectory for Ross to run under for a touchdown and keep the game going.
For reasons still unclear, though, Ross never put his hands up to attempt a catch, and the ball fell incomplete inbounds just in front of the goal line. Yet even two days after the fact, the only direction Uiagalelei pointed his finger was inward.
“I just know that with that throw, he wasn’t able to get his hands on it,” Uiagalelei said Monday. “So I take full responsibility in that.”
Last week’s game was another rollercoaster performance for the Tigers’ quarterback. It started on a high with Uiagalelei completing four of his first seven passes, including a 32-yard touchdown to Ross to cap Clemson’s second possession. Then things bottomed out.
No. 19 Clemson (2-2, 1-1 ACC) didn’t pick up another first down until early in the fourth quarter. Uiagalalei hooked up with Ross again in the first overtime for an 8-yard score, but that was just one of eight completions over his final 19 passes as he finished 12 of 26 through the air for 111 yards in a loss that further fanned the flames of frustration among those both in and outside of the program.
It even prompted a question of Clemson coach Dabo Swinney afterward as to whether or not he plans to open up the quarterback job up to competition this week in practice. Swinney said “I think” Uiagalelei is the starter, and the team’s updated depth chart heading into Saturday’s game against Boston College (4-0, 0-0) confirmed as much when Uiagalelei was still listed at the top of it.
While many of Clemson’s players and coaches who spoke to the media this week said they’re staying off social media for the time being in order to avoid some of the criticism being hurled their way, Uiagalelei said he still checks Twitter like usual, though not as frequently as he normally would. That’s because, he said, he’s not going to let any of the outside noise influence how he feels about himself.
“It doesn’t bother me,” Uiagalelei said. “A lot of stuff is being said, but I’m going to be me. 100% me.”
Uiagalelei also isn’t naive to the strides he needs to make to help the offense snap out of the funk it’s been in throughout the season. Freshman receiver Beaux Collins had a drop in the first quarter, but most of Uiagalelei’s incompletions were the result of inaccuracies that continue to stem from faulty mechanics at times, something Uiagalelei and offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said is still being constantly drilled in practice.
Touch is something else the strong-armed signal caller said he was largely pleased with on shorter throws. But there were some, like when he rifled a pass over the head of running back Will Shipley from a short distance on a checkdown, where it needed to be reined in a bit.
“Just put a little too much on it,” Uiagalelei said. “Probably put a little less on it and make it easier for him, and he would probably still be running right now.”
But just like when quarterbacks tend to get too much credit when things are going well offensively, Uiagalelei is also receiving too much blame for Clemson’s struggles on that side of the ball. Pass protection has been spotty from the Tigers’ retooled offensive line, which hasn’t opened up many running lanes either when Clemson tries to move the ball on the ground. As a result, Uiagalelei isn’t getting much help from a running game that’s producing less than 123 yards per game.
“From a quarterback perspective, we’ve got to do a better job up front just to make him get comfortable again,” Elliott said.
Yet Uiagalelei believes the offense is still capable of making a 180-degree turn. His reason for that confidence lies primarily in better execution as a unit, something Uiagalelei said is happening in practice but hasn’t yet carried over to the game. Uiagalelei said perhaps that could be a result of some players pressing amid the struggles and thinking too much rather than just reacting during games, but he doesn’t feel like he’s one of them.
“I’ve put a lot of stuff on my plate already, but I’m perfectly fine putting it there,” he said. “I know what I want to do when I step out on the field every time. I know I want to make each and every throw.”
So criticism? Yeah, he’s gained plenty of that this season. But he hasn’t lost any of his confidence along the way.
“I’ve 100% got confidence in myself,” Uiagalelei said. “I’ll be ready to go, and I feel like you’ve got to just continue to keep going and you’ve just got to keep grinding, you know? Adversity is either going to break you down or it’s going to build you up. It’s going to show what type of man you are and the type of character you have inside. I’m not a quitter. I’m a fighter. So I’m going to keep fighting.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!