Charlotte, North Carolina
Clemson Football spent most of Wednesday answering the question that will define, for better or worse, its 2022 season: What’s wrong with the quarterback?
Departing DJ Uiagalelei was Trevor Lawrence’s heir apparent last summer, but his rocky 2021 season has inspired little long-term confidence. Now his seat is even warmer thanks to the presence of highly touted freshman Cade Klubnik.
Head coach Dabo Swinney threw his weight behind Uiagalelei this week, noting how former Clemson star quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Lawrence also made mistakes as starters, but Uiagalelei was ‘amplified’ by injuries and the offensive struggles around him.
Uiagalelei threw for 2,246 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 13 games last year, leading Clemson to six straight wins to end his season but ranking among the ACC’s worst quarterbacks by standard and advanced metrics.
The 6-foot-4 Uiagalelei has also lost about 30 pounds (from 265 to 235) since Clemson’s December Cheez-It Bowl win over Iowa State and said he’s in “the best shape in my life.” life” at the beginning of his first year.
Still, Klubnik looms large. He is a former five-star recruit and Elite 11 MVP who led his high school to consecutive undefeated seasons and state championships in Texas’ top ranking. He also impressed in the spring game’s limited action.
State sat down with two ESPN/ACC Network analysts for their thoughts on the Clemson quarterback situation. Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
What’s next for DJ Uiagalelei?
Dalen Cuff, ACC Network studio analyst: The sport is wild. It’s a big mental game. I think he had his confidence shaken a bit and then fought for it. He’s a pocket passer. He’s not really going to create time with his legs. So how that offense changes and looks different this year will be important, potentially. And him being able to take certain things off the ball sometimes too.
He has a canon, but sometimes it’s the touch passes, the good reads, being able to make the right decisions and being able to realize that maybe he doesn’t have to do everything. I thought he already tried to do (those things) last year. And then play with yourself and maintain your confidence when that guy behind you might be a stud. Maybe it’s like Kelly Bryant when Trevor (Lawrence) came along and took his place. It must be in the back of his head – he’s a competitor.
So how he manages the camp, how he manages the first games and being able to play with confidence is a really critical thing. Even if he doesn’t play well, he doesn’t shake too much or worry about other things. It’s much easier for us to sit here and say that than to do it.
Kelly Gramlich, ACC Network studio analyst and former Clemson women’s basketball player: We just had (former Florida State quarterback and current ACC Network analyst) EJ Manuel on our podcast, and it was great to listen to his thoughts. I think a big part of the next step for DJ is the mental side of the game. He has all the tools. He has a great body to play the position. He has a great arm. I think it’s the mental side of knowing when to throw the ball, knowing when to go in and running, being able to stay in that pocket. It was a big problem for him last year.
And part of that is trusting your O line, trusting your wide receivers. But I think it’s largely mental. And there is an aspect of trust to that. Him starting with the game against Georgia…I think any human being who started with that game, his confidence would have taken a hit. Clemson’s wide receivers didn’t play well. There was a lot in this (loss).
But I think a lot of it is mental for DJ. And then the second thing is to be able to do the routine games. He can make wild plays. He can take the ball and dump it in a bucket to one of those wide receivers. But being able to hit those screen passes and pick up speed on the ball and have that touch, that’s what I think we need to see from DJ.
How can Clemson’s offense bounce back from the struggles of 2021?
Cuff: They started 4-3, but getting to 10 wins again for the 11th consecutive year is an impressive streak. Very few teams have managed to do this. I would say they were still a young team last year. They have a lot of guys coming back right now. Their defense will be excellent although they have had some injury problems. So staying healthy is always a big key.
But I think the quarterback game will be important. Their ability to run the ball is going to be really important. How (Will) Shipley behaves. But again, that offensive line will also be key. So I think it’s the trenches, which we all seem to avoid. Trench fighting, able to dominate both sides of the fray as they have in years past, will be truly critical as this team moves forward.
Gramlich: I think what stood out to me was just the offense and the lack of production. When you look at the numbers versus the rest of the ACC and you see the DJ path there at the bottom of the quarterbacks, you see the scoring offense is very low, the yards per game is very low , it’s really shocking.
Because Clemson had great defenses, but when he came on the scene in the early 2000s with (former offensive coordinator) Chad Morris, it was an offense-led program at the time. And we really have never seen a Clemson offense struggle like this. Even with Kelly Bryant, that offense was still scoring over 30 points per game.
So that’s really the big question. Can this offense be more than one force? Because the days when you won a national title with your defense first? Those days are over. Alabama doesn’t even do that anymore. So I think that’s a big question.