CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei was bulky, bothered by injuries, and beaten down last year by critics upset that the Tigers were out of the ACC and national championship picture.
Now, some 15 pounds trimmer, 100% healthy and mentally refreshed, Uiagalelei believes he’s once more the dynamic playmaker he showed his freshman season instead of the misfiring mess he appeared at times a year ago.
“I think I see a totally different guy,” Uiagalelei said Wednesday. “I’ve gotten better from the last game, someone who’s gone through it and is a totally different quarterback.”
The fourth-ranked Tigers open the season Monday night vs. Georgia Tech at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
Few thought Uiagalelei had little to change after his stunning cameo as a freshman. Uiagalelei replaced starter Trevor Lawrence — the NFL No. 1 overall pick missed two Clemson games with COVID-19 — in two stellar performances.
In his first college start, Uiagalelei threw for 342 yards and two TDs to rally Clemson from 18 points down in a 34-28 win over Boston College. A week later, Uiagalelei threw for a school-record 439 yards in a 47-40 overtime loss at Notre Dame — the most ever thrown by an opposing QB at the home of Touchdown Jesus.
The following fall, Uiagalelei was the highly anticipated starter and a Heisman Trophy contender. Things, though, quickly went awry.
Uiagalelei was off-target in a season-opening, 10-3 loss to eventual national champion Georgia and a 27-21 OT defeat at North Carolina State three weeks later that took the Tigers out of contention for their seventh straight ACC crown and College Football Playoff berth.
That’s when the criticism hit hard. The cool California kid heard calls for his benching and rumors he might transfer because he needed a fresh start somewhere else.
He had hurt a finger early on, then sprained a knee ligament last November. He was able to play through both. Still, that was certainly a factor in him completing less than 56% of his passes for 10 interceptions against nine touchdowns.
Turns out all Uiagalelei needed was time to heal, change his diet and restore a healthy mindset.
“I feel he’s in a really good spot,” first-year Clemson offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter said. “He has confidence in himself and we have confidence in him.”
The most difficult part for Uiagalelei was changing his eating regimen. He had to give up sweets, something impossible for many college students. The results were apparent as Uiagalelei will play at a much more tapered 235 pounds than his listed 250 pounds from a year ago.
Uiagalelei watched film with Streeter to shore up his technique. Streeter would stop the tape and ask, “You coach yourself, DJ.”
“He was quick to answer,” Streeter said. “He’s a really sharp kid.”
The effect on the field is also apparent during Clemson’s fall practices. Defensive end K.J. Henry said the junior looks more elusive and decisive heading into Monday night’s game.
“He’s done much better and one of those guys who’ll be the best version of himself” this year, Henry said.
Georgia Tech coach Geoff Collins is also anticipating the best version of Uiagalelei.
“He’s a dangerous runner, throws a nice deep ball. They way he runs that offense when they’re clicking,” Collins said, “I think they won six straight to end the season.”
Uiagalelei hung tough to power that closing run and knows he’s ready for another step forward. Clemson coach Dabo Swinney routinely asks his players for a word they carry into the season. Uiagalelei chose a phrase, “Roll The Dice.”
To him it means not dwelling on other’s opinions. “You bet on yourself,” Uiagalelei said. “You show people what you can do.”
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