From 'Big Stride' to 'Big Cinco,' Uiagalelei Faces Expectations of Legendary Transition

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei replaces legend Trevor Lawrence with tons of hype, but how seamless will the change-over be?
Author:
Updated:
Original:

From "Big Stride" to "Big Cinco," Clemson is set up to make a memorable transition from one great quarterback to another. 

However, will it truly be flawless? 

After all, Trevor Lawrence is considered by many NFL draft pundits to be the best pro prospect at the key position in nearly a decade. Generational talents aren't easily replaced by other generational talents. That's why they're considered generational. 

But Clemson is an unusual situation with D.J. Uiagalelei stepping in to replace a legend. Lawrence led the Tigers to a national championship in 2018 and became the winningest QB in program history. He added to Dabo Swinney's prime position lineage started by Tajh Boyd.

There was a small gap between Boyd, who set multiple school and ACC records, and Deshaun Watson, who also won a title for the Tigers and was a two-time Heisman Trophy finalist. Watson battled injuries his first season and sat behind Cole Stoudt early.

There was a gap when he left after the 2016 season. Kelly Bryant was the starter in 2017, and while Clemson reached the College Football Playoff that year, that squad wasn't good enough to win a national title. The following season, Lawrence came in and unseated Bryant after four games into the 2019 campaign, and the rest is history. 

There is no in-between guy this year. 

Uiagalelei immediately steps in as not just a super-talented passer, but a young man many think could and should lead Clemson to a national title and win the first Heisman in school history. Think about this: After making just two starts in 2020, Uiagalelei is second behind Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler in 2021 Heisman odds. 

The Clemson sophomore is already a star, not a star in the making. Much of that has to do with the fact that we've laid eyes on his talent. And in this year's offense, there's a good chance he'll put up even better numbers than Lawrence.

When Lawrence was out with COVID-19, Uiagalelei threw for 342 yards, scored three touchdowns and led the Tigers to a come-from-behind win over Boston College in his first career start. 

A week later at No. 4 Notre Dame, he torched that defense for 439 yards, the most the Irish had ever allowed to a QB. However, despite his two TD passes, the Tigers lost the game, giving him his first blemish on the overall record. 

Uiagalelei, who did all that with a bum shoulder, wasn't the reason Clemson lost that game, and all he did was fuel belief that there won't be much, if any, drop-off between him and Lawrence

How realistic is that though? Looking through recent history, there aren't a ton of slam-dunk examples to lean upon. Sure, Oklahoma went from Baker Mayfield winning the Heisman to Kyler Murray winning the Heisman to Jalen Hurts being a Heisman finalist in three consecutive seasons. But there were real concerns about the possibility of that, and nobody expected Murray to put up the numbers he did and steal the trophy away from Tua Tagovailoa.

Speaking of the former Alabama QB, the Crimson Tide won a national title the year after he left with Mac Jones under center, but again, there was no consensus that Jones would be one of the best players in the country last year. 

That's why Clemson's position isn't normal. It's hard to find folks who aren't in love with Uiagalelei's talent and the probability of winning big at Clemson. But there's always one. 

"There's a part of me that wants to see young quarterbacks struggle and how do you respond after that struggle," CBS Sports college football analyst Danny Kanell said on the "Cover 3" podcast. "What happens if D.J. goes out and has a rough game against Georgia (in the season opener), which is not crazy to think that could happen? How does he respond to that? I wonder if D.J. has some learning-curve type of game."

Kanell, a former Florida State quarterback, does bring up a valid point. He questions how Uiagalelei will handle criticism if he has an off day, and there's a great chance he will. 

"I think he's going to be great," Kanell said. "I think he's going to be awesome, but there's always that sliver of doubt in me that says, 'I don't know.'"

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound QB isn't a cyborg. He'll make some mistakes, and what he does after those errors will help define his career and impact.

So will getting Clemson back to the CFP and winning a national title. That was the expectation under Lawrence, and it's the same with Uiagalelei the next two seasons. Anything less will be a disappointment in Tiger Town.

While that might sound extreme to some, it's the only way to judge how seamless this transition from Lawrence to Uiagalelei goes in 2021.