In Impressive Starting Debut, the Young D.J. Uiagalelei Shows He's Up for the Challenge

The true freshman QB led a comeback win over Boston College, and the stakes will be even higher against Notre Dame next week.
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So far, so very good for D.J. Uiagalelei. But the next challenge is so very big.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Saturday after his team’s 34–28 comeback victory over Boston College that star quarterback Trevor Lawrence won’t play next week at Notre Dame. That will be his second straight missed game after testing positive for COVID-19 Thursday. And that means the showdown of top-five teams in South Bend will be the second collegiate start for Uiagalelei, the five-star freshman from California.

His first start was pretty spectacular: 30 of 41 passing for 342 yards and two touchdowns, plus another touchdown rushing. Uiagalelei’s rocket arm, athleticism and poise were all on display against the Eagles, as he led Clemson back from an 18-point deficit—the largest home comeback in school history.

“It shows he has the heart of a champion,” said Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott.

Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei

Despite that shiny first college start, the Tigers surely would feel better taking on the Fighting Irish with Lawrence, who has a 31–1 record as a college starter. Lawrence’s 10-day Atlantic Coast Conference window since testing positive would be closed in time for him to play against the Irish, but Swinney said Saturday that “you have the cardiac part. He won’t be able to get through that in time to play.”

The ACC’s cardiac protocols were released in August: “Based on the [medical advisory group’s] consultation with multiple cardiologists, at a minimum, every student-athlete, symptomatic or otherwise, who tested positive shall undergo a cardiac evaluation that includes an electrocardiogram (ECG), a troponin test, and an echocardiogram after isolation and before a phased return to exercise and re-acclimatization.” However, as Sports Illustrated reported earlier this week, some sports cardiologists are no longer recommending any cardiac screenings for those who experience mild or no symptoms. Lawrence has said he has mild symptoms.

Barring some change in protocol or diagnostic timing, Uiagalelei’s next start will be against a Notre Dame defense that entered this Saturday second nationally in scoring defense (9.8 points allowed) among teams that have played more than one game, and fourth in total defense (273 yards allowed). The Irish backed that up by throttling Georgia Tech Saturday, allowing only one offensive touchdown in a 31–13 stroll.

While the challenge will be great, don’t expect Uiagalelei to be rattled by it. He’s been a big deal for years, a phenom prospect who played for the Southern California powerhouse St. John Bosco High School. He didn’t come to Clemson to avoid the spotlight.

“I’ve been preparing myself like I was a starter all along,” he said Saturday. “I was ready to go.”

News came down of Lawrence’s positive test Thursday at 12:45 p.m., according to Elliott. Swinney found Uiagalelei in the quarterback room at the Clemson football facility, studying film, and informed him that he was now the starting QB for the No. 1 team in the nation.

What followed was a 48-hour crash course with the starting offense, but both Uiagalelei and Elliott said the gameplan for B.C. didn’t really change from what it had been all week. Elliott gave him a list of potential play calls, and Uiagalelei checked off the ones he liked and those he didn’t, as usual. Lawrence texted his support Thursday and again Saturday morning.

“I was just bummed out he couldn’t play,” Uiagalelei said. “He told me he had total faith in me.”

Among the other texts D.J. received was one from former USC star Reggie Bush, who Uiagalelei said is his favorite player. When that one came in he thought, “Dang, I’ve got to play good today.”

And then he did. Uiagalelei had a pedestrian 108.25 pass efficiency rating through Clemson’s first six games, completing 12 of 19 passes for 102 yards. His efficiency rating Saturday: 159.34.

“We pressured him a bunch but they did a good job protecting,” Boston College coach Jeff Hafley said. “They did a great job on third down. We tried to rattle him, we tried to get after him on third down. … He’s got a big time arm. He’s a good kid and he’s got a bright future. I would have loved to rattle him a bit more but they did a good job protecting and executing. Hats off to him, he’s going to be a really good football player.”

Thing is, Uiagalelei had to be good, because this was a major struggle for Clemson as a whole against the Eagles.

Boston College rolled through the Tigers defense for touchdowns on its first two possessions, taking a 14–7 lead into the second quarter. Then Clemson turned a touchdown drive into a disaster at the goal line, when Uiagaeleli and star running back Travis Etienne botched a handoff—a mistake Elliott attributed to Etienne. B.C. defensive back Brandon Sebastian scooped it and ran 97 yards the other way for a shocking 21–7 lead.

That marked the first time Clemson had trailed by two touchdowns in six years. And it got worse from there.

The deficit grew to 28–10 after another long Eagles drive. But from that point on, the Tigers defense finally took control and Uiagalelei calmly guided four scoring drives to regain the lead.

“What I loved the most was his poise, demeanor,” Swinney said of his freshman QB. “He led the team. Everybody saw what we saw all the time as far as his demeanor."

Elliott began the game giving Uiagalelei a steady diet of short throws, most of them quick plays that didn’t require much reading of the B.C. safeties. But as the game progressed the playbook opened, and there were more throws downfield. Senior receiver Cornell Powell, who Elliott said was “really challenged” by Swinney this week to step up amid multiple injuries at that position, responded with career highs of 11 catches and 105 yards (his previous highs were five and 50, respectively).

But the true security blanket was, as always, Etienne. He became the ACC’s all-time leading rusher during the game, but it was his receiving out of the backfield that provided Clemson’s biggest weapon. He had seven catches for 140 yards and finished the game with 264 all-purpose yards.

Etienne will be counted on all the more in South Bend next week, as the journey without the best player in college football ratchets up a notch in terms of difficulty. But the Tigers also can go into that road showdown knowing that their next great quarterback is talented enough and confident enough for that challenge.

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