D.J. Uiagalelei committed to Clemson about four months after Trevor Lawrence had picked apart both Notre Dame and Alabama as a freshman en route to winning the Tigers' second College Football Playoff National Championship in a three-year span. A consensus five-star prospect ranked as the No. 2 player in his class by the experts at 247Sports, Uiagalelei's projections had him positioned to be the next Clemson quarterback to contend for national championships and eventually develop into a first-round pick in the NFL Draft.
The fact that he would have a year to develop before Lawrence's then-presumed departure only added to the excitement for Clemson fans, but that energy took a turn to anxiety on Oct. 29, 2020, when Lawrence revealed that he had tested positive for COVID-19. Everyone knew that Uiagalelei would be the face of the program eventually, but this midseason call-up put the freshman in the spotlight and to the test in a way no one expected that early in his career.
Uiagalelei's response to the challenge was momentous. In a 34-28 win against Boston College, Uiagalelei led Clemson's largest comeback at home (18 points) since 1966, throwing for 342 yards with three total touchdowns (two passing, one rushing). The comeback was a new challenge not just for Uiagalelei but every player on Clemson's roster, since the Tigers had not trailed by more than 14 points in a regular-season game since 2014.
In the epic 47-40 double-overtime loss at Notre Dame that followed, the Irish defense proved stout against Clemson's rushing attack, so Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards and scored three touchdowns (two passing, one rushing) to lead the Tigers back from a 10-point halftime deficit before falling short in the second overtime period. Uiagalelei's 439 yards were the most-ever by a freshman in Clemson history, breaking the previous mark held by Deshaun Watson, and the most-ever by an opposing freshman quarterback against Notre Dame, breaking the previous mark held by Carson Palmer. It was also the first set of consecutive 300-yard passing performances for Clemson since Lawrence's star-making performance in the College Football Playoff at the end of his freshman season.
So as we turn our attention to 2021 and the Clemson offense of the post-Trevor era led by Uiagalelei, we have actual evidence to replace some of our projection. The sample size is small but awesome. We don't have a lot of questions about what he can do, it's a matter of whether it can be replicated across an entire season as starting quarterback, especially with those two games of film for opposing defensive coordinators. It's about Uiagalelei playing at a high level for an entire season as the leader of an offense that boasts elite talent facing heightened expectations following the loss of key veterans at nearly every position.
The expectation for Uiagalelei in 2021 is that he is going to be the starting quarterback for a national championship contender. There's no qualifiers or follow-up questions needed. And if you talk to Clemson coach Dabo Swinney about expectations, he's going to make a point that the greatest motivator is the man himself.
"I can tell you this -- D.J., whatever we tell him, it's going to pale in comparison to what his expectations of himself are. And I love that about him," Swinney said following the spring game.
So what needs to happen for Uiagalelei in order to meet those expectations? We've identified a few key areas below.
Taking ownership of the offense
This point comes directly from Swinney, but the challenge includes plenty of other references from Uiagalelei that all seem to point to a mastery of the offense. In reviewing every single mistake and every situation from spring ball, Uiagalelei becomes more fluid in the language of Clemson's offense. He wants to get better with every check, every little wrinkle of the offense so he's not only able to execute his role but lead the rest of the unit. There's the leadership in terms of being more vocal, but he's also someone that wants to lead by example. That is going to come with a full knowledge of the offense allowing him to hold his teammates accountable. He's referred to Lawrence as "the most accountable guy on the team," and that example is the bar for Uiagalelei's goal of being in total control of his side of the ball.
"I am trying to be a little more vocal this year," Uiagalelei said prior to the start of spring practice. "But I want to try to lead by example. Let my play do the talking. I want to be the most accountable guy on the team. I feel like as long as you lead by example, people will follow."
Next steps in physical maturity
Listed at 6-4, 250 pounds, there is no doubt that Uiagalelei gets off the bus with unique physical advantages compared to most of his peers. Most quarterbacks are not that big, and many of the ones who are don't have the throwing abilities that he possesses. Against both Boston College and Notre Dame, he was used in the run game on designed quarterback runs or reads but also showed the ability to break the pocket and take on defenders in the open field. Clemson has had its fair share of physically-gifted players arrive on campus only to further develop in the team's strength and conditioning program. Taking those next steps is a big part of the next four months.
"Getting his body in the best possible position he can be in," Swinney said earlier this month when asked what he'd like to see from Uiagalalei after spring practice. "He does a good job of that ... his body is nowhere near mature as it's going to be as he continues to grind in the weight room and nutrition."
There are two major reasons why having Uiagalelei in the best physical position is key to Clemson's success. First, the quarterback run has long been a key piece of the Tigers' offense in the biggest games against the best teams. From Tajh Boyd to Deshaun Watson to Trevor Lawrence, the quarterback's ability to take advantage of a defense that has over-committed to stopping other threats has been a key to winning against elite opponents. Of the six times that Lawrence recorded double-digit rushing attempts in his three-year career, four were in College Football Playoff games. Uiagalelei can be a punishing threat in the run game with his physical gifts, but that also runs a risk of injury. Which brings us to the other major reason: the quarterback depth is a concern. Backup Taisun Phommachanh suffered a torn Achilles in the spring game, and the third-string option is Hunter Helms, a former three-star recruit who fans would prefer to see on the field mostly at the end of blowout wins. Not all injuries can be prevented, but peak physical condition is a great way to give yourself the best chance to get through the season healthy.
Helping teammates fill the void at skill positions
There's a production void that certainly starts with Lawrence, but includes Travis Etienne, Amari Rodgers, Cornell Powell and others. In Bill Connelly's returning production rankings, the Tigers rank No. 118 on offense and No. 3 on defense. The expectation is that Clemson can contend for a national championship in 2021, and in doing so will need some of that highly-rated offensive talent to step up into new roles. Uiagalelei has to be the leader, but his success is linked hand-in-hand with the emergence of players like Joseph Ngata and Ajou Ajou. If they get multiple top-end receivers playing at a high level, things become easier for Uiagalelei.
And that's where Uiagalelei, who will be in charge of leading a lot of the summer workouts for the skill guys, has to find that balance of being a vocal leader and leading by example. The wide receiver room is absolutely stuffed with players who, based on their projections as high school prospects, plan to be in the NFL one day. It's not just spring game stars like Ngata and Ajou, but E.J. Williams looking to continue on a strong finish to 2020 and freshmen like Beaux Collins and Dacari Collins (no relation) who are hungry for opportunities. Oh yeah, and Justyn Ross is expected back on the field this fall, reportedly ready to give defensive coordinators nightmares as a 6-3 slot receiver.
But turning all that potential into production requires a lot of moving pieces falling into place, and Uiagalelei is the key to making it happen. It has to start with continued growth in leadership this summer, plus physical and mental development to better prepare him for elite-level execution in the fall. Uiagalelei has to be the best version of himself from the moment Clemson opens with Georgia on Sept. 4. The opener has this new-look offense, with all its promising-but-inexperienced talent, facing off against one of the best defenses in the country in one of the biggest games of the regular season.