It was the first spring in several years that Clemson was without its two main offensive playmakers, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and tailback Travis Etienne. Both were instrumental in helping the Tigers remain atop the Atlantic Coast Conference and win the national title after the 2018 season.
Lawrence and Etienne were both ACC players of the year – Lawrence this past season, Etienne in 2018 and 2019 – and the two are expected to be first-round NFL draft picks. Lawrence is projected to go No. 1 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars while Etienne figures to be one of the first running backs chosen.
Together, the pair had a hand in 48 of the Tigers’ 64 offensive touchdowns last year. That’s a lot of firepower for Clemson to make up for next fall.
But Uiagalelei, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound powerhouse, has embraced the challenge.
“Obviously, he’s got the worst job in America,” offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst joked last month. “He’s got some pretty big shoes to fill, but he’s a very talented kid and a steady worker. And I know all of us have full confidence in D.J. and we’re excited to see him let it rip.”
Uiagalelei’s Orange team fell to the White squad 14-13. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 174 yards and his lone touchdown came on the game’s opening series, a 14-yard throw to freshman Beaux Collins.
“I think I need to get better, get better at everything, I feel like,” he said. “I want to be the best I can for my team.”
Uiagalelei gave Clemson a taste of his talents while pressed into action last season when Lawrence missed two games after contracting COVID-19.
Uiagalelei rallied the Tigers from 18 points down to beat Boston College 34-28 last October. Uiagalelei, who threw for 342 yards against the Eagles, topped that showing a week later at Notre Dame, where he passed for 439 yards in a drama-filled, 47-40, double overtime loss.
Uiagalelei was grateful to spend last year learning from Lawrence and is ready to take control of the six-time defending ACC champions.
“He stands tall, he’s very confident,” receiver E.J. Williams said. “It’s just a great vibe to have in a quarterback.”
Uiagalelei, a rising sophomore, soaked up as much as he could from Lawrence, both on and off the field. Uiagalelei watched how Lawrence handled himself at practice and even how the 6-6, strong-armed quarterback got his schoolwork done.
Uiagalelei is not concerned with matching Lawrence, just continuing the success of Clemson’s offense.
“I’m just trying to do my job, be a leader for the guys,” Uiagalelei said. “Be a voice and just be the leader of the offense.”
There’s work ahead for Uiagalelei, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
“We want him to be that guy that fully committed to being a threat with his legs and his arms,” Swinney said. “He’s 250 pounds. So now, it’s about getting in the weight room, transforming his body and being the best version of D.J. Uiagalelei we’ve seen to this point.”
Clemson will have a consortium of runners looking to match the production of Etienne, who left as the ACC’s all-time rushing leader. Lyn-J Dixon has the most experience as Etienne’s primary backup the past three seasons. The tailback group for new assistant C.J. Spiller also includes five-star freshman Will Shipley from Weddington, North Carolina.
Sophomore Kobe Pace led the group Saturday with 69 yards rushing.
There was some troubling injury news for the Tigers as quarterback Taisun Phommachanh left late in the game with what Swinney said later was a torn Achilles tendon. Phommachanh, in his third season at Clemson, was expected to be Uiagalelei’s backup.