So much of the talk about the struggles of Clemson’s passing game has focused on D.J. Uiagalelei’s inconsistency, but there’s something else the Tigers’ quarterback is working to improve, too.
Even after a 423-yard performance in a win over Boston College — the Tigers’ second-most yards in a game this season — Clemson still ranks 115th out of 130 FBS teams in passing yards (178.6 per game). The Tigers had 207 yards passing against Boston College but had their chances to rack up even more through the air.
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney isn’t putting the blame solely on his sophomore quarterback, but Uiagalelei’s misses down the field continue to be part of the issue. Clemson had one of its better games on the ground against the Eagles, averaging nearly 6 yards per carry. Boston College played more man coverage on the back end as a result, but the Tigers rarely took advantage of those matchups on the outside with Uiagalelei misfiring on a handful of deep balls, some of which would’ve been touchdowns had they connected.
“If we’re going to get where we want to go this year, we’ve got to connect on a few more of those,” Swinney said.
So there’s still work to do there after Uiagalelei finished 13 of 28 passing, but he’s also working to improve his decision-making in the running game. At 6-foot-5 and 247 pounds, Uiagalelei has the ability to be a punishing runner, something the Tigers are starting to work into their offensive game plans with more frequency.
Uiagalelei has seen his carries gradually increase, from a combined 12 in the first two games to 11 rushing attempts against Boston College. Those totals don’t include sacks, which count against teams’ rushing stats at the college level. Uiagalelei, who accumulated 50 net yards on those carries against the Eagles, was second only to running back Kobe Pace as Clemson’s most utilized ball carrier in the game.
“He’s making his presence known in the run game, which is really good,” Swinney said. “And he’s starting to really kind of hit his stride there. He’s a problem. That’s a big, strong man that’s hard to get down.”
Whether it be the QB power, counter or a draw, some of Uiagalelei’s runs are designed with no reads. But zone reads and run-pass options are also part of the Tigers’ playbook, which, when called, require Uiagalelei to decide whether to hand off to the back, pull the ball and run it himself or throw a quick screen based on his “read” of the defense after the snap.
Specifically, Uiagalelei keeps a close eye on the way the defensive backs are covering receivers. If they take away the pass by crowding the line of scrimmage, then Uiagalelei’s best options are to hand the ball off to the running back or keep it himself based on what the backside defensive end does. If the end stays high and zeroes in on him, then it should be a handoff. If the end crashes down on the back, usually leaving the edge exposed, Uiagalelei should pull it from the mesh point.
Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said Boston College was deceptive in the way it defended the zone-read plays. Elliot explained the Eagles were crashing the end down only to replace him with another defender, but the Uiagalelei rarely took the bait.
“They’ll make you think that you’ve got the pull, but they’ve got the depth to rally to it,” Elliott said.
Uiagalelei wasn’t perfect. But Elliott and Swinney said they were largely pleased with his decisions to hand off in those situations to Pace and freshman running back Phil Mafah, who combined for 186 yards on 26 carries.
“There are a couple where I think he could be a little more aggressive, but for the most part, I think he’s made the right decisions,” Swinney said. “I do think that’s an area he’s still growing, but he’s done a heck of a job.”
It’s one of many for a quarterback who’s just seven starts into his collegiate career, but Uiagalelei is steadfast in his belief that Clemson’s offense will eventually put it all together.
“Each and every game, we’re going to keep growing. And by the end of the year, who knows where this offense is going to be at?” Uiagalelei said. “I just can’t wait to see the fruits of our labor come from all the work we put in each and every week.”
Clemson Variety & Frame is doing their part to help bring you some classic new barware and help one of the local businesses that helps make Clemson special.
Order your Nick’s barware and do your part to help. #SaveNicks