When No. 19 Clemson hosts Boston College on Saturday, it will be D.J. Uiagalelei’s next opportunity to improve on the inconsistencies that have plagued him early this season.
Clemson’s sophomore quarterback enters the weekend with a completion rate of 56.2%, last among ACC signal callers and 103rd in the FBS. Uiagalelei had his most efficient day in Clemson’s narrow victory over Georgia Tech two weeks ago (72% completion rate) before hitting the other end of the spectrum through the air last week in the Tigers’ overtime loss at North Carolina State (46%). The strong-armed quarterback continues to work on fine-tuning some mechanical issues affecting his accuracy on intermediate-to-deep throws as well as touch on shorter ones.
“Just not what he needs to be,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. “Not what he can be. Not what he will be. At times, (his mechanics) are really good. Like, ‘Wow.’ And at times, you go, ‘Dadgummit.’ So, inconsistent.”
While most of the defenses Clemson (2-2, 1-1 ACC) has gone up against this season mark the first time Uiagalelei has seen them in his first year as Trevor Lawrence’s successor, that’s not the case this week. Uiagalelei got his first career start against Boston College last season after Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19, one that went about as well as the Tigers could’ve hoped considering the circumstances.
While many may have viewed his performance against a top-5 Notre Dame team on the road the following week as his coming-out party, it was against the Eagles that Uiagalelei first came through in a big way to help Clemson, then ranked No. 1 in the country, avoid disaster at home. Boston College led by as many as 18 points in the first half, but Uiagalelei completed 30 of 41 passes for 342 yards and two touchdowns to help Clemson rally for a 34-28 win.
That would be the highest completion percentage for Uiagalelei this season on more passes than he’s attempted all season. Uiagalelei’s 72% clip against Georgia Tech came on 25 attempts.
He added a 30-yard touchdown run against Boston College for good measure last season, but how was Uiagalelei able to be so effective throwing the ball against the Eagles’ 4-2-5 base defense? The answer boils down to high-percentage throws and the use of Clemson’s All-American running back more as a pass catcher.
Boston College, coached by former NFL defensive assistant and Ohio State co-defensive coordinator Jeff Hafley, mixed up its looks against Uiagalelei, dropping eight defenders at times while sometimes blitzing with a blend of zone and man coverage behind those pressures.
Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott dialed up some easy throws early and often that would work against either in an effort get the young quarterback comfortable and in a rhythm. Implementing a series of out routes, hitches, slants and even a jet motion action, Uiagalelei completed his first eight passes, all but one of them covering no more than 8 yards.
The outlier? A 35-yard scoring toss to Travis Etienne, whom Uiagalelei found as his checkdown against a blitz with Boston College playing man behind it. Boston College linebacker Isaiah McDuffie was too slow to cover Etienne out of the backfield, and Etienne took care of the rest.
It’s a matchup Clemson often exploited whenever Etienne drew a linebacker or safety in coverage. Cornell Powell had a team-high 11 catches, most of that production coming underneath with Uiagalelei’s longest completion to a receiver going for 20 yards, but Etienne tied Amari Rodgers for the second-most receptions (seven) and led Clemson with 140 receiving yards.
Some of those came on swing passes out of the backfield to let Etienne operate in space, but Uiagalelei connected with him on a vertical route for 33 yards early in the second half. Clemson also split Etienne out wide to the field on one particular play later in the third quarter. He blew past Eagles linebacker Max Richardson, and Uiagalelei hit him in stride for a 42-yard completion.
“(Uiagalelei) has about as strong of an arm as I’ve ever seen,” Hafley said this week. “It looks like he’s throwing 98 miles-per-hour fastballs. When he’s on the run, he can do it. And he can do it in the pocket.”
Later on that same drive, Uiagalelei rifled a ball on Rodgers’ back shoulder for an 8-yard touchdown that drew the Tigers within two points, an indication of the timing and accuracy he had that day, particularly on throws to the right side of the field. Clemson didn’t take a ton of deep shots against the Eagles, but Uiagalelei’s most consistent misses came on intermediate throws to the left side (3 of 8 on throws of at least 8 yards in that direction).
Uiagalelei also didn’t have to throw in the face of pressure too often thanks to his protection up front. Clemson moved the pocket a few times with some rollouts, but it was kept relatively clean throughout the game. Uiagalelei was sacked just once, and Boston College only pressured him one other time on more than 35 dropbacks.
Uiagalelei’s performance is even more relevant to this year’s rematch given he’s going to see much of the same personnel from Boston College. The Eagles have all but two defensive starters back from last year’s team, but will Boston College be as aggressive as it was at times last season given Uiagalelei’s supporting cast isn’t the same as it once was?
“Familiarity is not a problem right now (when it comes to improving execution),” Uiagalelei said of the offense. “I’m ready to get out there for another week and get another chance to play another game.”
Center Cade Stewart is no longer around, and left tackle Jackson Carman has taken his talents to the NFL. So has Etienne, who’s still teammates with Lawrence with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Clemson’s retooled offensive line has struggled mightily to create consistent push in the running game, putting much of the pressure on Uiagalelei and his receivers to produce through the air. And among the backs still on the roster, there hasn’t been the kind of safety valve out of the backfield for Uiagalelei that Etienne was.
The Tigers’ backs have combined for just nine receptions through four games, and the one they’ve tried to get involved in the passing game the most, freshman Will Shipley (four catches for 16 yards), will miss multiple games after sustaining a lower leg injury against N.C. State. Senior Lyn-J Dixon, who’s set to transfer, is gone for good.
Uiagalelei has come close to attempting 41 passes just once this season. That was against Georgia when he threw 37. It didn’t go well as he completed just 51% of those attempts and threw a pick-six on a night when Clemson, ranked 99th nationally in rushing heading into the weekend, netted just 2 rushing yards.
Uiagalelei can do his part by being more consistent in the accuracy department. But if Boston College decides to join Georgia Tech and N.C. State in their approach to drop into coverage more often and dare the Tigers to run the ball, how much help he gets will go a long way in determining whether or not Uiagalelei can replicate the success he had against the Eagles a season ago.
“You watch the tape, and he was special in this game,” Swinney said of last year’s game. “So he can do it. It’s just putting it all together, and we’ve got to be better around him.”
Football season has finally arrived. Time to represent your Tigers and show your stripes!