Since Trevor Lawrence took over the starting job at Clemson against Georgia Southern on Sept. 15, 2018, the Tigers have lost exactly one game. That one loss came to Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers in the 2020 College Football Playoff Championship Game.
Over the last three years, Lawrence has accumulated 8,778 yards, 83 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions. It’s been pretty clean sailing until the future No. 1 draft pick tested positive for COVID-19. He sat out against Boston College and Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney after the game that Lawrence would also miss a top five matchup between the Tigers and Notre Dame in South Bend on Nov. 7.
In almost every other case, that spells lots of trouble for a football team trying to go win against a top five team on the road. To be clear, it does make the job tougher, but Swinney had to put one five-star, pro-style quarterback on the bench and bring in, you guessed it, a freshman five-star, pro-style quarterback to replace him.
His name is DJ Uiagalelei. He’s a 6’5, 245-pound freshman from Bellflower, California. He’s the No. 10 prospect in the class of 2020 and he’s the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in this recruiting class. At this point, most people already know who he is after he and Clemson running back Travis Etienne erased a 28-13 deficit against Boston College. Uiagalelei finished that game with 342 yards passing on 30 completions with two touchdowns.
But who is Uiagalelei? Who is he as a player? What did he show us against Boston College last Saturday and can he lead Clemson to South Bend and come away with the victory? Let’s try and answer all of those questions.
Who is Uiagalelei as a player?
First and foremost, Uiagalelei is huge. What’s the one thing everyone says about Cam Newton? He’s so physically gifted. He’s so much bigger in person. You just don’t see quarterbacks built like that. Newton, according to Pro Football Reference, is 6’5, 245 pounds. I’ll save you the trouble of going back up to the introduction of this article to see what Uiagalelei’s dimensions are. He’s also 6’5, 245 pounds. He’s massive, but like Newton he’s a fit 245 pounds that moves well in the pocket and can use his legs to make plays when necessary. Unlike Newton (who has run over 55 times already this NFL season), Uiagalelei is certainly a pro-style quarterback who can make plays if he needs to like his 30-yard touchdown run against Boston College.
However, the headline skill that Uiagalelei possesses is arm strength, generational arm strength. There’s video of him winning throwing contests by throwing 80+ yards in the air (the video below features a 72-yard throw).
While he could simply overwhelm every high school team in the country with arm strength and size, he also possesses the skills that might help him overwhelm college football teams at Clemson. He’s got great accuracy and finesse and shows the ability to make a predictive, accurate throw on an out route or a quick side arm pass to the guy coming across the middle. He can send his best receiver deep and drop it in his arms like a loaf of bread, or he can ask his tallest receiver to go up and get a feathery pass in the back corner of the endzone. What makes Lawrence so good is his unbelievable ability to throw the right kind of pass every time (When was the last time you saw Lawrence really over/under throw a receiver?) Uiagalelei clearly possesses that ability as well.
While it might not be all that important, Uiagalelei dominated high school football his last two years at St. John Bosco in California. He went 27-1 over those two seasons losing to only Mater Dei at the end of his junior season. He finished his senior season with a national championship throwing for over 4,600 yards and 56 touchdowns. In other words, the guy is a leader and a winner in a high school football world where it’s very hard to be those two things. Save maybe Texas, it’s hard to find higher level high school football than in California.
Uiagalelei has the arm talent, size and intangibles to step into the starting role of any football program in the country. If Lawrence didn’t exist, Clemson would still be rated as one of the best teams in the country based on Uiagalelei’s potential alone. It just so happens that he’s not the best quarterback on his team because the future No. 1 overall pick is still under center.
So, which parts of his game were on display against BC? Let’s find out.
What did we see from him against Boston College?
First and foremost, Clemson’s narrow escape of BC was not narrow because Uiagalelei didn’t perform well. The Tigers defense — which was suffering from injuries on Saturday — was just nowhere to be found in the first half and they stepped up to pitch a shutout in the final two quarters. The five-star freshman threw for 342 yards, two touchdowns and also turned in another touchdown in the form of a 30-yard run. He was spectacular.
So what did he show us? He certainly showed off his arm strength, but he did some other, more important things. First, he showed presence of mind in a college football pocket. That sounds silly to say, but a pocket closes faster and the athletes are simply better in the ACC than they are in high school. Uiagalelei is clearly capable of handling it. The Clemson offensive line did a good job protecting him as BC only recorded one sack, but when the pressure came, Uiagalelei got it out quickly.
On his first touchdown pass of the game, BC sent a blitz from the secondary that was not picked up by a Tiger, the freshman was able to sense the pressure quickly, get it to Etienne in the flat and the all time leading rusher in ACC history took care of the rest. The Fighting Irish are 17th in the country in total sacks, they are good at getting to the quarterback and are going to force Uiagalelei to make quick decisions like this on Nov. 7.
He also showed off his arm strength in addition to his accuracy. From what I’m told that’s a deadly combination as a quarterback:
Feel free to watch the rest of this video, but that throw was something. It was a laser in between four defenders and somehow Amari Rodgers was the only person who had a chance to catch the football. He also showed off his ability to throw a touch pass down the sideline in between the corner and the safety. We knew he had the arm strength, and as we’ve seen he definitely showed that off, but he’s also got the accuracy, the finesse and the awareness that a quarterback must have against a defense as good as the Fighting Irish.
I want to mention two more things. First, Uiagalelei showed an ability to read the defense and do it quickly. On his touchdown run, he had the option to hand it off to Etienne but saw what the defense was doing, pulled it back and took off through a gap that a truck could go through. In most cases he made the right decision, and he did it quickly.
Second, he had pressure throughout this game. He took the field in the second half down 28-13 and he led a second half comeback with the help of his defense to keep Clemson’s perfect season alive. In a weird way, Saturday couldn’t have gone better for the Tigers. Their defense found itself again in the second half and not only was Uiagalelei very good, he was very good when Clemson needed him to come back and win that game. That matters way more than a stellar performance in a 42-3 blowout.
He also faced pressure in high school. As mentioned he narrowly lost to Mater Dei as a junior before beating them 39-34 as a senior on his way to a championship. California high school quarterbacks play in really big games with college talent all over the place. That certainly doesn’t hurt if you’re a Clemson fan.
Can he lead Clemson to a road victory at Notre Dame?
Yes, he absolutely can, and not just because Sagarin has the Tigers favored to win the game and not just because the Tigers are favored on DraftKings as of Nov. 6 by a margin of 5.5.
The Notre Dame defense is good both in the pass and run game. They give up the 11th-fewest passing yards per game in the country and the 8th fewest rushing yards, but they also haven’t come across a quarterback anywhere near the caliber of Uiagalelei or an offensive line that protects quarterbacks the way the Clemson line does.
As previously mentioned, the freshman has played in big games before under a lot of pressure at St. John Bosco and he performed under pressure a week ago. He’s also proven he can put lots of points on the board. That’s a good thing for Clemson because Notre Dame’s quarterback, Ian Book, is much more of a game manager than anything else. He’s thrown for more than 263 yards just once and has just seven touchdowns on the year (tied for 48th, nationally). The meat of the Fighting Irish offense is their running game. Kyren Williams is 12th in the country in rushing yards and only 11 teams rush for more yards per game on average than Notre Dame. Uiagalelei has the firepower to get the Tigers out to an early lead and force Book to throw the football more.
To be clear, Clemson won’t win this game solely on the back of Uiagalelei. That’s silly to suggest. Travis Etienne will be great along with the Clemson receiving core and the defense needs to play a more complete football game than they did against Boston College.
But one thing is for sure, Clemson fans shouldn’t feel bad about Uiagalelei being under center on Saturday. There’s no doubt he is capable of getting the job done.
Photo by: TigerNet.com / Flickr