D.J. Uiagalelei’s season continues to be a work in progress.
Clemson’s sophomore quarterback had his latest rollercoaster performance Saturday in the Tigers’ 30-20 win over Florida State. There was no benching like the previous week against Pittsburgh as Uiagalelei went 19 of 31 for 189 yards and a touchdown, but he also turned it over two more times, including a strip sack midway through the fourth quarter that wasn’t all on him but still led to a scoop and score that gave the Seminoles a 20-17 lead.
“Just didn’t see the guy coming around,” Uiagalelei said. “Definitely could have the ball a little tighter to my body and maybe step up in the pocket. … Just got to be able to step up, and that doesn’t happen.”
But regardless whether things were going well or not, offensive coordinator Tony Elliott noticed a change throughout the game in Uiagalelei’s approach to keeping his teammates in good spirits, which is typically done more through actions than words.
“Several times during TV timeouts as the offense was getting ready to go out, I could hear him through the headset, through one of the other (microphones) of the coaches,” Elliott said. “He was in there challenging the guys from a leadership standpoint.”
Uiagalelei has admitted being vocal isn’t the most natural thing for the soft-spoken signal caller to do, but the 6-foot-5, 247-pounder has done a lot of self-reflecting this season. One of the things he’s realized as a result of that, he said, is the need to improve his verbal leadership skills, particularly at a position that everyone else in the huddle is looking toward for guidance.
“I think as the season keeps going on, you kind of see where you need to grow,” he said. “Just keep growing, and you get a little more comfortable each and every game you play. I feel like that’s where it comes from.”
Uiagalelei said he’s gotten to a point where he no longer keeps quiet if he feels the need to say something. Some of his teammates said they’ve also noticed that difference, and not just in games.
“All throughout (last) week,” running back Will Shipley said. “He really has taken that role, and he’s done a great job being vocal and keeping everybody’s energy up. To hear it from a guy like DJ, I think he’s just starting to grasp how much that really means to a football team and to an offense, to have that leadership from your quarterback.”
Uiagalelei saved some of his most impactful words for when Clemson got the ball back still trailing by three with less than 4 minutes left Saturday. The offense needed a few first downs to get into field-goal range and just 58 yards for a go-ahead touchdown, though with the way the group has performed for much of the season, neither was a given.
“All I said was we just need to be detailed, focused and just have fun out there,” Uiagalelei said. “Just play the game that we love. … Don’t stress too much. This is just football, man. Don’t make it bigger than it really is.”
Five plays later — after the assistance of a couple of 15-yard penalties on FSU — the Tigers were in the end zone on Shipley’s 21-yard touchdown run. Shipley said his quarterback’s words mattered.
“I think it’s a huge reason why we got in the end zone,” Shipley said.
Slowly but surely, Uiagalelei is coming out of his reserved shell.
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