D.J. Uiagalelei hasn’t been flawless this season, but Clemson’s quarterback isn’t where he was last season.
The importance of that can’t be overstated for the Tigers’ offense, which spun its wheels for much of the 2021 campaign in plummeting from its usual production from recent years. A significant part of the downturn was quarterback play as Uiagalelei completed less than 56% of his passes and thew more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9).
Through three games of his second season as the full-time starter, it’s been a different story for Uiagalelei. Turnovers have still popped up here and there with a lost fumble against Georgia Tech and an interception against Furman – and Clemson coach Dabo Swinney acknowledged Uiagalelei was fortunate to not have another on a particular ill-advised throw against Louisiana Tech last week – but Uiagalelei is completing his passes at a 65% rate while accounting three times as many touchdowns (6) as turnovers (2).
Fresh off a 48-point outing against Louisiana Tech, the Tigers have eclipsed the 40-point mark in two of their first three games. That’s something they did three times all of last season on their way to averaging just 26.3 points per game.
Individual growth in Uiagalelei’s game has helped. So have a lighter frame, improved mobility and a clean bill of health. Uiagalelei, who’s fully recovered from the sprained knee he played with toward the end of last season, is the Tigers’ second-leading rusher with 114 yards on the ground, 62 of those coming in the win over Louisiana Tech.
But Uiagalelei said having a supporting cast that’s remained the same has contributed to his fast start as much as anything.
“For me, it’s been really nice,” he said. “It’s been a pleasure to have the same guys each and every week and to be able to keep growing with the same guys each and every week.”
Swinney admitted coming into the season that Uiagalelei needed to raise his level of play, but he’s been adamant since the end of last season that the quarterback needs more consistent help around him, something that was hard to come by a season ago as injuries piled up.
Clemson started eight different combinations along the offensive line last fall. Running backs Will Shipley and Kobe Pace weren’t available for every game, and the Tigers’ top three receivers entering the season ended it on the shelf.
But there hasn’t been nearly as much fluidity in personnel so far this season. While there have been the usual substitutions for depth purposes, Clemson’s offense has had the same starting lineup in all three games.
“It’s important, man,” Uiagalelei said. “I’d be lying to you (if I said) it wasn’t important to be able to get that timing down.”
The consistency hasn’t always been there for the receivers, who’ve had their share of drops early on. But Uiagalelei’s top three targets so far this season – Beaux Collins, Brannon Spector and freshman Antonio Williams – have combined for 26 catches while senior wideout Joseph Ngata has caught six passes in the last two games. Tight end Davis Allen has made his share of big plays, too, averaging 16.8 yards on his five receptions so far.
“That’s everything for a quarterback and receivers is timing, to be able to know exactly where he’s going to be at and for receivers to know exactly where the ball is going to be at,” Uiagalelei said. “And the only time you get that is through repetition. To be able to continue to have those reps each and every week, it’s been great.”
Uiagalelei and the rest of the offense will try to build on the early momentum Saturday when Clemson hits the road for the time in ACC play against No. 21 Wake Forest.
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