Hayes: DJ Uiagalelei is back ... and so is Clemson as a legitimate Playoff threat
If you take a moment and find logical conclusions, it’s not that difficult to understand.
Yet here we are, in the spectacularly chaotic world of what’s next, searching for what’s wrong with DJ Uiagalelei.
Well, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has an answer.
“He’s gaining confidence, man,” Swinney said. “He’s starting to get his swagger back.”
Welcome, everyone, to the life of Generational to Bust — and all the way back again.
This is how the ride goes when, before you even sign with Clemson, you’re stamped as the best of the 3 straight generational — there’s that word again — quarterbacks to roll through a Top 5 program. Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence, DJU.
Then Uiagalelei’s freshman season arrived, and he waited while Lawrence finished his final season. Then Lawrence got COVID, and then DJU fired off a 2-game stretch — one on the road against Notre Dame — that backed up all that hype.
In a win over Boston College and an overtime loss to Notre Dame, Uiagalelei threw for 781 yards, has 6 total TDs, 0 INTs and completed nearly 70 percent of his passes. Clemson, everyone, isn’t going to miss a step in 2021.
And then it did.
And then a rebuilt offensive line struggled for much of the season. Then injuries hit the offense like they never have at Clemson under Swinney, since all the way back to when the administration took a flyer on the wide receivers coach and made him interim coach in 2008.
You want transition? Think about this: Clemson started 8 combinations on the offensive line in 2021. A few guys who, frankly, weren’t ready to play but were forced into the lineup.
By the end of the season, Clemson’s 3 best receivers were injured and 5-star tailback Will Shipley had missed 3 games and was dinged for a handful of others.
And one more thing: DJU played a majority of the second half of the season with a tweaked knee, couldn’t condition and gained weight, and was a completely different quarterback.
There’s your generational to bust in 1 year. There’s your reason the clamoring for freshman 5-star backup Cade Klubnik began from the moment he stepped on campus.
The absolute absurdity of it all.
“I love how (Uiagalelei) has shown up ready, and the last 2 games, has gotten really good starts,” Swinney said. “I’m proud of him. He still has a lot of room to improve, but he’s heading in the right direction.”
Here’s the key: He’s heading in that direction with the same group of guys around him. The same, healthy offensive line. The same, healthy receivers. And the same, healthy — and more dangerous — Shipley and TB Kobe Pace, who also missed time last season.
Funny how continuity and normalcy are wildly overlooked in a game that typically is decided with 4-5 plays every Saturday.
“It’s important,” Uiagalelei said. “I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t.”
Look on the field, it shows. DJU is a different player this season, and while some of it has to do with weight loss (from 265 pounds to 235), a majority has to do with Clemson simply having consistent — and now developing — players around him.
Uiagalelei had 9 TDs and 10 INTs in 2021, and those numbers in a season of regression translated to 10 wins. Imagine where it could head this fall, with everything and everyone intact, and with Uiagalelei moving forward on the road back to — wait, forget generational — normalcy.
The Tigers get their first test Saturday at Wake Forest, the same Wake that snapped Clemson’s 5 consecutive ACC Atlantic Division titles (and 6 consecutive Championship Game appearances) by winning last year’s division title.
The same Wake Forest that despite its recent history of gaudy offensive numbers with QB Sam Hartman, lost to Clemson last season by 3 touchdowns.
The framework was beginning to take shape in that game last year. Shipley and Pace both played (and combined to rush for nearly 300 yards), freshman WR Beaux Collins was finishing a run of 3 consecutive strong games (including 4 catches, 137 yards against Wake) and the offense never looked better in 2021.
Much of that same group will arrive in Winston-Salem on Saturday in a statement game of sorts. Clemson has eased through 3 gimme putts to begin the season (Georgia Tech, FCS Furman, Louisiana Tech), and this is clearly the first big test of how far the offense — and more specifically, Uiagalelei — has come.
“We’re not the (Kansas City) Chiefs yet, but we’re getting better,” Swinney said. “We could not hardly throw for a first down last year, and I think we’ve gotten a lot better.”
They’ve gotten better because DJU is more confident — in himself and his preparation, in the offensive line, in his receivers. He’s healthy and in terrific shape, so he’s not falling off throws, not constantly moving his feet, and not panicking and escaping after his first read.
He’s working his way back to November of 2020, when a confident freshman stood before his teammates prior to the Notre Dame game and assured them they were good.
It took 2 overtimes for the Irish to escape that day, against a freshman quarterback in his 2nd career start. A quarterback who looked every bit of generational as was advertised.
That’s the quarterback Clemson needs to make another ACC Championship run, and get back to playing November games with Playoff potential.
“We’re making big plays, we’re sustaining drives, that’s what you want to see out of an offense,” Uiagalelei said. “We’re stepping in the right direction every game.”
Generational to Bust, and all the way back again.