For the first time in what’s been a trying season for Clemson’s offense, Dabo Swinney publicly voiced the obvious about the performance of quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei.
“He struggled the first few games,” the Tigers’ coach said Tuesday.
That’s been well-documented. The accuracy and touch Uiagalelei teased coaches and fans with last season in two spot starts (781 passing yards on 69% completions against Boston College and Notre Dame) has largely been absent the first half of this season. His 55.7% completion rate is the third-lowest among the ACC’s starting quarterbacks, and he tossed three interceptions through the first four games, none more costly than that pick-six against Georgia that ultimately made the difference in the Tigers’ 10-3 loss to the nation’s No. 1 team.
But as No. 24 Clemson (4-2, 3-1 ACC) prepares to start the back half of its schedule Saturday with a trip to No. 23 Pittsburgh (5-1, 2-0), the Tigers’ sophomore signal caller insists he’s in a better place now.
“Slowly but surely, I’m definitely getting a lot more comfortable in the game,” Uiagalelei said. “I feel like I’m getting better each and every game.”
They might have been baby steps, but the stats from his latest outing seem to provide some merit to Uiagalelei’s claim. The 6-foot-4, 247-pounder completed 61.7% of his passes in the Tigers’ win over Syracuse last week. It was his highest completion rate since completing more than 70% of his attempts against Georgia Tech on Sept. 18, but that was only on 25 attempts. Uiagalelei had nearly that many completions against the Orange with a season-high 21.
He also played turnover-free football for a second straight game, another sign of growth for a quarterback that still has just eight career starts to his name.
“I think the longer you play in a season, the more comfortable you get with playing and the more at ease you are,” Uiagalelei said. “I think that’s the main thing.”
Against Boston College two weeks earlier, Uiagalelei went just 13 of 28 with a handful of overthrows, particularly on deep balls against man coverage. Those kinds of opportunities weren’t there against Syracuse, so that’s one area where Uiagalelei still has to show he can connect. But he was on target with the majority of his intermediate throws against the Orange and put some of them where only his receivers could catch them.
That was particularly true on his lone touchdown pass when he spun a 19-yard seed toward Joseph Ngata’s back shoulder near the back corner of the end zone early in the second quarter. Ngata extended to make the catch before getting his heel in bounds to complete the score. Uiagalelei got some help from Justyn Ross late in the quarter when Ross leaped to snag a 15-yarder in front of the goal line to set up Clemson’s final touchdown, but he came back early in the second half and threw a rope between a safety and a corner to freshman receiver Beaux Collins for a 23-yarder down the sideline, his longest completion of the night.
The help around him, though, wasn’t always there. Uiagalelei’s completion percentage and yardage total (181 through the air) could’ve both been higher if not for a handful of drops on accurate throws, including one by a wide-open Ross near midfield on the Tigers’ second possession in which Uiagalelei felt some pressure, slid up in the pocket to avoid it and delivered a strike between Ross’ numbers.
Those kinds of self-inflicted miscues have only exacerbated the Tigers’ offensive woes, but whether it’s been Uiagalelei’s fault or not, Swinney said he’s proud of his quarterback for staying the course amid the criticisms of the offense’s performance that have only grown louder from voices on the outside.
“These past two games, he’s made a big turn. And his best game was this past one,” Swinney said. “We’ve just got to be better around him.”
Uiagalelei said he’s gotten back to “just going out there and ripping it” while trusting his preparation rather than thinking so much, but it’s not the only area in which he’s getting more comfortable as the leader of the Tigers’ offense. Admittedly a more reserved personality, Uiagalelei said he’s also forced himself to gradually come out of his shell and be a more prominent voice in the leadership department.
As the one everybody else in the huddle is looking to for guidance, Uiagalelei said he views it as a necessity.
“‘I’m more of lead by example,” Uiagalelei said. “I’m not like a rah-rah type of guy. I’m not that kind of leader, but I think that’s something I’m working on and trying to get better each and every day at it.”