‘It’s improvement’: QB Uiagalelei steps up in win
- ACC reporter.
- Joined ESPN in 2012.
- Graduate of the University of Delaware.
ATLANTA — Clemson closed out an uneven performance Monday in its opener against Georgia Tech with a thrilling 10-play, 66-yard touchdown drive led by freshman Cade Klubnik, but following the 41-10 win, head coach Dabo Swinney said there’s not a quarterback controversy for the Tigers.
Offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter reiterated that DJ Uiagalelei, who completed 19 of 32 passes for 209 yards, 2 total touchdowns and a fumble, remains the clear-cut starter, despite Klubnik’s impressive final drive.
“There is no question in my mind, no matter what you all think, DJ has earned the right to be the guy,” Streeter said. “And he did some good things that he didn’t do last year. It’s improvement.”
Uiagalelei got off to a slow start against Georgia Tech, with Clemson’s offense limping through much of the first half, which included a botched snap on a third-and-1, Uiagalelei’s fumble deep in the red zone, and several drops from Clemson receivers.
That the Tigers rebounded for an emphatic win — and a far smoother second half — offered ample evidence of Uiagalelei’s improvement from 2021, when he was among the least efficient QBs in the Power 5.
“He didn’t make a bad play worse,” Swinney said. “He took care of the ball outside of one play. He put the ball on the money. I thought he pushed through adversity.”
Uiagalelei offered some criticism of his own performance, noting a throw to EJ Williams in the end zone he narrowly missed, and a less-than-elegant performance as a runner.
Uiagalelei slimmed down by more than 25 pounds this offseason with the hope of being more mobile in the pocket, and Clemson utilized him as a runner 11 times Monday.
“I had a couple good runs, but sometimes I got tripped up and felt like if I got my knees up I could’ve gotten a lot more yards,” Uiagalelei said.
On the whole, however, Uiagalelei said he felt like it was a solid overall performance.
“I’m just excited, man. I had fun,” he said. “We moved the ball when we needed to, scored points, and had some big drives when we really needed it.”
Still, it was hard to ignore Klubnik’s impressive final drive, which looked as sharp as any Clemson’s offense has manufactured in much of the past year.
Klubnik had completions of 20 and 18 yards on the drive, then hit Will Taylor for a 3-yard touchdown to put the finishing touches on the win. Even Uiagalelei came away impressed.
“You can tell he was out there playing with a lot of confidence, and he looked great,” Uiagalelei said. “I expect nothing less from him. He had a great drive, and it’s exciting to see. He’s a great player, and he’s gonna be a baller.”
In both 2014 and 2018, top freshmen — and former blue-chip recruits — Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence unseated Clemson’s veteran starters after getting early reps in the first few games, but Swinney said heading into Week 1 he wasn’t anticipating a similar situation with Klubnik.
Klubnik was ESPN’s No. 29 overall recruit and the top pocket passer in the class of 2022, but Swinney said he sees this year’s depth chart more akin to when Uiagalelei arrived in 2020 with Lawrence as the established starter.
“DJ’s the starter,” Swinney said last week. “We’re certainly going to get Cade as many opportunities as we can to play but it’ll be the same as when DJ came in here, and be within the flow of the game and the season. DJ, he’s got great aspirations of graduating in December, and it’s important to get Cade ready to roll.”
While Klubnik’s star turn in his debut will undoubtedly provide ample fodder for fans eager to see a change at QB, Streeter said, behind the scenes, the decision has been clear-cut.
“DJ has been an unbelievable leader on his team,” Streeter said. “He’s done a great job of earning the right to be the starter. The way he practices the way he carries himself, the way he’s got grit and nastiness and just finds a way, you know, those are things that you can’t coach that all the time.”
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