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NFL Draft

Clemson Must Utilize D.J. Uiagalalei Correctly To Fulfill His Potential

  • The Draft Network
  • September 8, 2021
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A 6-foot-4 mountain of a man, Clemson quarterback, and Trevor Lawrence’s successor, D.J. Uiagalelei entered his sophomore campaign with loads of expectation and Heisman Trophy aspirations in the forefront of his mind. A two-game starter last fall, the former 5-star recruit by way of High School powerhouse St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California, Uiagalelei’s immense ceiling has raised comparisons to who in fact was the more talented signal-caller at Clemson last fall: he or Lawrence?

While Lawrence has gone on to serve as the No. 1 overall selection in the 2021 NFL Draft by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Uiagalelei has hit a road bump in what many expected to be a sophomore season with calm waters and clear skies. Following a Week 1 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs that saw Uiagalalei hit the turf seven times, skeptics have arisen from the ashes when it comes to one of college football’s most revered signal-calling talents.

In his two starts last season, including a 47-40 loss at the hands of Notre Dame, Uiagalelei totaled 781 passing yards, the most in a player’s first two starts in Clemson history. More than Deshaun Watson, more than Tajh Boyd, and more than Lawrence. In 10 overall appearances, Uiagalelei completed 78-of-117 passes for 914 yards and five touchdowns, and most importantly, zero picks in 235 snaps. He also became just the second FBS player since the turn of the century to attempt at least 115 passes with at least five passing touchdowns and no interceptions (Georgia Southern’s Shai Werts in 2018). He also added four rushing touchdowns via 28 carries in what was mostly garbage time with Clemson up big in the second half of games.

Through Week 1, it’s been much of the opposite end of the spectrum for the highly-praised gun-slinger. Along with Lawrence’s departure from Death Valley, the team also saw the exit of running back Travis Etienne, lineman Jackson Carman, wideout Amari Rodgers, and boundary threat Cornell Powell. With each of the aforementioned offensive losses now playing on Sundays, a lack of rapport up front and timing with Uiagalelei and his wideouts lacked during Clemson’s opening game. And while flashes of his performance against the Fighting Irish not even 12 months ago remain in the mind of many, it’s hard to ignore his overall lack of ability, to say the least, against one of college football’s most feared defensive groups.

It comes down to Dabo Swinney and his evolution of the Tigers’ offense similar to the adjustments Brian Daboll has made with Josh Allen of the Buffalo Bills. 

Similarly built talents with bazookas for arms, Allen and Uiagalelei, as much as they are different, are eerily similar comparing their collegiate profiles. A small-school prospect out of Wyoming, Allen entered the league as a wide-eyed rookie with as much arm arrogance as any, with the ability to make any throw in the book. Similar to baseball in that sure it’s nice to sit 97-99 mph with your fastball, but hitters will adjust, and resultantly, runs will be scored. It’s the elite who are able to change speeds, locate, and keep hitters—in this case, a defense—off balance. In football, and relating toward Allen, his progression as a runner of the football has offered an entirely new dynamic to his game from when he left Wyoming and entered the NFL just three years ago.

With 11 starts in his rookie season, Allen managed a 5-6 record, amassing 10 touchdowns through the air compared to 12 interceptions. In years two and three, Allen has transformed his game, accumulating 23 wins, rushing the ball 109 (2019) and 102 (2020) times, a result of keeping teams off balance with a threat to throw and run on each snap. While the margins aren’t substantial by any means, his comfortability in both aspects of his game has presented nightmares for defensive coordinators to counter.

Uiagalelei and Swinney must alter their approach. Teams want Clemson to drop back 35-40 times and have Uiagalelei attempt to pick them apart; it’s a formula for success, just ask Notre Dame and Georgia. Rather than relying on his underdeveloped pre-snap ability to this point, getting him in space on designed touches to allow his massive 250-pound frame to get downhill could be the recipe for a rapid acceleration in his development, similar to Allen’s rise as one of the NFL’s MVP favorites this fall. With fresh faces in abundance both up front, in the backfield, and out wide, allowing Uiagalelei to diversify his game will prove to be a paramount narrative if Clemson seeks a return back to the CFP this winter. No one is asking for a heavy supply of keepers or naked boots, but an increase in play-action concepts or empty sets with options to both run or throw built within the play design could see Uiagalelei’s progressions speed up… in a good way.

With a matchup against South Carolina State awaiting this weekend, it won’t mean much to NFL brass if he lights up the Bulldogs for 400 and a handful of touchdowns; he’s proven he can do that. But, nonetheless, his ability to rise from his first gut-punch of his collegiate career with new wrinkles in his style of play could reveal the type of quarterback many believe is the odds-on favorite to go No. 1 overall in 2023.

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