Clemson football: For DJ Uiagalelei, redemption looks like an ACC Championship
For DJ Uiagalelei, this season probably has felt more like 2.
There’s the 1st half of the 2022 campaign, when the junior quarterback made good on Dabo Swinney’s ACC Media Day promise that Clemson fans would see a “different DJ” this season.
Through the first 7 games, all Clemson wins, Uiagalelei was outstanding, tossing 17 touchdown passes against just 2 interceptions and adding 4 more touchdowns on the ground, along with 4 games when he tallied more than 50 yards rushing. That’s season No. 1, when Uiagalelei was injecting himself into the middle of the ACC Player of the Year conversation, playing with confidence and swagger and helping the Tigers overcome an uncharacteristically slow start, by their lofty standards, on defense. Clemson scored at least 30 points during each of the first 7 games, including 51 in a back-and-forth tilt at then-No. 20 Wake Forest that put the Tigers in the Atlantic Division driver’s seat by the end of September.
Then came season No. 2, which looked more like 2021 for Uiagalelei. During a 5-game stretch to close the regular season, Uiagalelei struggled and Clemson lost twice, spoiling any hopes the Tigers had of advancing to another College Football Playoff. Uiagalelei threw just 5 touchdown passes during that 5-game span, and he hurled 5 interceptions as well, including a clinching interception returned for a score against Notre Dame. Uiagalelei also was less effective as a runner, breaking the 50-yard mark just twice over Clemson’s final 5 contests. The offense sputtered late in the season, scoring 30 or more in just 3 of the 5 games, and managing just 14 on the road against Notre Dame.
With Uiagalelei playing more like the 2021 version who became the 1st Clemson starting quarterback to fail to win the ACC in 7 seasons, as opposed to the guy who defenses couldn’t handle in victories over ranked Wake Forest and NC State teams, Clemson’s dreams of the program’s 4th national championship withered last week at Death Valley, where the Tigers lost to archrival South Carolina 31-30 and in the process, saw the nation’s longest home winning streak end at 40 games.
While many Clemson fans have been calling for Swinney to turn the reins over to the Tigers’ latest 5-star quarterback prodigy, Cade Klubnik, since the freshman led a furious rally to defeat upset-minded Syracuse during late October, the coach has demurred. Swinney has insisted Clemson needs to play better around Uiagalelei, and defended his quarterback again after the South Carolina loss.
“DJ had some plays that he’d like to have back, but he was a long way away from being the reason we lost the game, that’s for sure,” Swinney told reporters during a Sunday teleconference. “He doesn’t return kicks and play safety and catch the ball. He can only control his part, but all of those things affect your psyche and the rhythm of the game.”
He repeated himself Monday, telling assembled media that “DJ wasn’t the reason we lost 2 games, and if he was, we would have made a change.” Swinney also reiterated an important reality: Klubnik, for all his talents, isn’t ready.
“DJ didn’t play well at Notre Dame,” Swinney said. “That game was a disaster. But we put Cade in that game, and he threw the pick there on the 5. So, it kind of went into the next game with alright, this is where you are DJ, and you got to play well. And he played lights out against Louisville and Miami. So, we have tried to put Cade in there, but DJ responds and plays well.”
Respond and play well Saturday, and Uiagalelei will get the ultimate redemption: a conference title to call his own.
It’s 1 Swinney thinks his embattled quarterback deserves.
“DJ deserves the opportunity to lead his 10-2 team to the ACC championship,” Swinney said Monday. “I know what the issues are, and they are not what some people think they are. Sometimes everybody’s on the same page. But DJ, the reality is, he’s had a good year. He’s had a much better year. He’s a great leader. He’s unbelievably respected. He works incredibly hard, and he can really do it Saturday.”
Uiagalelei, to his credit, has feasted on lesser defenses all season. It has been better defenses: Syracuse, Notre Dame, South Carolina — that have given Uiagalelei trouble.
North Carolina, which ranks 117th in total defense and 110th in yards allowed per play, certainly is a lesser defense.
In fact, the 18th-ranked Tar Heels will be the 2nd-worst defense (Louisiana Tech) that Uiagalelei will have faced all season. He accounted for 283 yards and 2 touchdowns over 3 quarters of Clemson’s 4-touchdown win against Louisiana Tech. A repeat of that Saturday could earn him ACC Championship MVP honors, which would be remarkable, given opposing quarterback Drake Maye is the frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year.
Still, Uiagalelei has to go out and perform. Redemption won’t be handed to him, and the bright lights of a conference championship game will be the largest stage he has ever played on, even including his freshman year, when he spelled Trevor Lawrence so admirably for much of the regular season.
Swinney is right, of course, that Saturday’s game won’t be Uiagalelei’s to win or lose alone. No. 10 Clemson will need better play from its wide receivers, who had 3 costly drops against the Gamecocks, all negating potential big gains. Clemson will need to ride its run game, led by blossoming star Will Shipley Jr., who just this past weekend became Clemson’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Travis Etienne. And Clemson will need its defense, unlocked by the likes of Spencer Rattler just last weekend, to bounce back and harass Maye, who is among the nation’s best quarterbacks.
Uiagalelei, then, doesn’t have to do it alone. Hardly. That doesn’t change the fact he’ll be the center of attention, with a fan base wondering about a change with every errant throw or Clemson punt. But that pressure? It’s part of the privilege of playing quarterback at Clemson.
Win Saturday night’s game, and Uiagalelei will get a different, more fulfilling kind of attention. Win Saturday night, and Uiagalelei’s story won’t be about his shortcomings. It will be a story of redemption. That story? It’s one Clemson fans will celebrate late into the Charlotte night and beyond.