DJ Uiagalelei era begins at Clemson and Tigers are in good hands

by - Senior Writer -
Uiagalelei is ready to take the reins of the Clemson offense.
Uiagalelei is ready to take the reins of the Clemson offense.

Trevor Lawrence announced his intentions to enter the 2021 NFL Draft Wednesday morning, ending the career of yet another generational quarterback that graced the playing field of Memorial Stadium. With the departure of Lawrence, however, stands another waiting in the wings in DJ Uiagalelei.

Lawrence, a junior, is expected to be the NFL's No. 1 pick of the NFL draft. The Jacksonville Jaguars currently hold the top spot. He went 34-2 as a starter, losing only last season's national championship game against LSU and last week's Sugar Bowl semifinal against Ohio State.

He led Clemson to a national championship in 2018 as a freshman. He was ACC player of the year this season and runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.

Lawrence finishes his career with the third-best winning percentage as starting quarterback since the Division I split in 1978. He passed for more than 3,000 yards in each of his three years, a single-season feat that has been done only nine times in school history. He threw for 10,098 yards with 90 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. He also ran for 943 yards and 18 scores.

That’s a hard act to follow, but Lawrence followed Watson’s act and made his own path, just like Watson followed the path of Tiger great Tajh Boyd and forged his own way. And that’s the great thing about Uiagalelei – he has a personality similar to both Lawrence in that he’s quiet and doesn’t like the limelight. He also is similar to Watson in that he is a fierce competitor and thrives when the pressure is highest.

Then there are the physical gifts – he’s a gifted passer with unique arm talent. During spring practice, we were waiting in a corner of the indoor practice facility for a few players to come out for interviews and I had my back to the playing surface. It wasn’t long before I heard a buzzing noise – if you’ve ever been close to a football or baseball being thrown with high velocity you know the noise – and turned around to see Uiagalelei.

He had enlisted wide receiver Will Swinney to help him with after practice throws, and Swinney was running routes into the far right corner of the end zone while Uiagalelei moved all over the field. At one point, Uiagalelei moved to the far hash at the 30-yard line and launched a missile that hit Swinney’s hands with an explosion. That’s a 40-yard down the field, across the field throw that was on a line. That is, in a word, special.

Uiagalelei has already proven the moment isn’t too big. Let’s go back to high school.

During Uiagalelei’s senior year at St. John Bosco, the Braves were facing the No. 1 team in the nation – Mater Dei – in the CIF-SS Division 1 championship game. Mater Dei had won by two touchdowns a few weeks earlier and were led by Alabama commit Bryce Young. Mater Dei was expected to once again roll and complete an undefeated championship season.

The Monarchs led 14-0 less than three minutes into the game on two touchdown passes by Young. The Braves trailed 28-5 in the first half – again, against the No. 1 team in the nation – when Uiagalelei went to work. Trailing 28-5 after Young’s fourth touchdown pass of the day, Uiagalelei led his team on an 80-yard drive in nine plays covering 4:06 to get his team within 28-12 at the break.

Uiagalelei then drove his team again to open the second half, taking it 62 yards to make it 28-19. He threw three more touchdown passes and the Braves had scored 34 consecutive points and led 39-28 after being down 28-5 to what has to be one of the best high school football teams in history.

Bosco won the game 39-34 as Uiagalelei passed for 444 yards and five touchdowns.

Fast forward to late October, when he made his first collegiate start when Lawrence was out with COVID. All he did was lead Clemson to a 34-28 victory as the Tigers rallied from 18 points behind. It was Clemson’s largest deficit overcome in program history in Death Valley. Uiagalelei threw for 342 yards with two touchdowns and rushed for a touchdown. The yardage was third-most by a Clemson freshman in his starting debut.

He then made his first career road start Nov. 7 at Notre Dame and passed for 439 yards with two touchdowns, although the Tigers lost in two overtimes. The yardage was third-most in Clemson history and broke the program’s freshman record of 435 set by Deshaun Watson. It was also the most ever by any player against Notre Dame, breaking a mark of 425 by Southern Cal’s Carson Palmer in 2002.

Uiagalelei finished his freshman season (even though, technically, he could be a freshman next season under NCAA rules and still have four to play) completing 78-of-117 passes for 914 yards and five touchdowns without an interception.

Watching Lawrence walk away and into the NFL might be tough for some Clemson fans, but Uiagalelei’s dad, Big Dave, posted this on social media Wednesday, thanking Lawrence:

Thank you Trevor, I’ll say it again and again, the way you received DJ and took him under your wings, is the reason why he was successful on the field and off. DJ’s decision of coming in and learning from Trevor was a brilliant decision. Thank you again Trevor for being so kind to my son. God bless you on your journey.

One Clemson journey ends, and another is just beginning. I think the Tigers are in good hands.

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