How Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei turned things around and quieted the doubters

CLEMSON, S.C. — DJ Uiagalelei is blessed. That is his word and he uses it earnestly and often.

For instance, he woke up Monday morning, two days after beating Wake Forest in overtime while throwing for 371 yards and five touchdowns, and for that, he is blessed. He arrived at Clemson‘s football facility and worked out with his teammates, the ones who have had his back through 13 months of turmoil and frustration, and for that, he is blessed. He carried a jug of water from the gym to his weekly meeting with the media. He slouches in a chair, wearing moccasins, a Clemson football T-shirt and a bejeweled Jesus pendant on a gold chain around his neck. He chats with a phalanx of reporters, many of whom spent much of the past year lambasting his performance and, as recently as three weeks ago, wanted him benched.

And yes, even for that, he is blessed.

“I don’t take any hard feelings from that,” Uiagalelei said. “You have stories to write. That’s totally fine with me.”

There are good days and there are bad ones, and Uiagalelei finds value in them all, he said.

Of course, lately, there have been a lot more good days. Clemson is 4-0 and hosts No. 10 NC State on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App), and its much-maligned QB is finally hitting his stride. Last week’s win over Wake Forest felt like catharsis for so many people in Uiagalelei’s orbit, a moment when even the harshest critics had to admit that, yeah, the kid looked sharp.

It was, as his head coach Dabo Swinney noted, a good time for the doubters to eat crow.

“After four games, if you don’t recognize this kid’s special ability, then you’re blind,” Swinney said. “You just want something else to write about. Hopefully, everybody can tear up all those articles you’ve written, or take some ownership for them at this point.”

Swinney is right. Uiagalelei is special, but those criticisms weren’t unfounded. In 2021, Uiagalelei went from preseason Heisman hype and a national ad campaign with Dr Pepper to throwing just nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions over 13 largely ugly football games. What the critics missed wasn’t his talent, but his resilience. What makes Uiagalelei special is that he endured one of the worst seasons by a high-profile quarterback in recent memory, and he somehow righted the ship and turned it all around.

There are myriad explanations for Uiagalelei’s revival. Clemson’s offensive line is finally giving Uiagalelei a chance to thrive. His receiving corps has improved. He lost weight, and he’s more mobile. After dealing with a broken finger and a bum knee for much of last season, he’s healthy. Life away from football has calmed. He’s playing with confidence. He has some swagger again. He’s in a good headspace.

There’s some truth to all of it. But the biggest reason Uiagalelei has survived and has Clemson poised to regain its place atop the ACC Atlantic is simple. He never crumbled under the weight of expectations because, for Uiagalelei, it’s all been a blessing.

“That’s life, man. Everybody has problems,” Uiagalelei said. “But I never questioned God’s plan. God led me through a time that, it wasn’t the best, but he led me out to the other side. I feel like God did that for a reason to make me a better person, a stronger person.”

IT WAS ASSUMED Uiagalelei would blossom into a superstar. The pieces, seemingly, were all there. He arrived at Clemson as one of the nation’s most heralded recruits (No. 43 in the 2020 ESPN 300 and the top-ranked pocket passer), the next in line for a Tigers team that had enjoyed a run of talent from Tajh Boyd to Deshaun Watson to Trevor Lawrence over the past decade. In 2020, Uiagalelei was forced into the starting job midseason when Lawrence, the future No. 1 overall draft pick, was sidelined with COVID-19. In his first start, he led a dramatic comeback win over Boston College. In his second, he threw for more than 400 yards in an overtime loss to Notre Dame — the most passing yards by any QB against the Irish in history. After Lawrence headed to the NFL, Uiagalelei became the starter, signed a host of name, image and likeness deals, and was, in many ways, the face of college football before he’d even begun his first season as a full-time starter.

Then, it all fell apart.

Uiagalelei struggled in Clemson’s season-opening loss to Georgia, his pick-six proving the difference in the game. Then came a double-overtime loss to NC State and a late October loss to eventual ACC champion Pittsburgh. Through seven games, Clemson had topped 21 points just once, against FCS South Carolina State, and it had as many losses as it had endured in any season since 2014.

There was plenty of blame to go around, but the bulk of it landed on the shoulders of the QB.

“People wanted to blame everything on him last year,” said Tyler Venables, Clemson’s safety and Uiagalelei’s roommate. “There was a lot that went into it that was not his fault, and anybody with a brain knows there was a lot more to it.”

There was an offensive line that struggled to block. There was a receiving corps decimated by injuries. There was a group of tailbacks with tons of talent but virtually no experience. There were injuries and family stresses that Uiagalelei still doesn’t like discussing and a mountain of criticism from fans. Yet each week, Uiagalelei returned to the field, blamed no one but himself for Clemson’s struggles and muddled through another game in which every yard felt hard-earned and, in 10 of the Tigers’ 13 games, still added up to enough (just barely) to win.

Inside Clemson’s football facility, it earned Uiagalelei unprecedented respect.

“It’s a lonely spot to be in when you get all the blame and all the criticism,” Swinney said. “Some of it was warranted, but a lot of it was not. And how he handled things, he went to work.”

Outside the locker room, however, much of Uiagalelei’s efforts to find room for optimism and rally his troops was interpreted as a kid who simply didn’t get the magnitude of his struggles. Uiagalelei found hope in the plays that worked, but fans wanted penance for all the ones that didn’t. He still smiled and joked with teammates and, after games, he wore tailored suits and his diamond necklaces — the Jesus pendant or the one with his nickname “Big Cinco” — and critics assailed him as entitled.

“There were a lot of people out there pulling for him to fail, to be honest,” Swinney said. “I felt like people were attacking the player and not the play, and that’s really sad.”

All the while, Saturdays were marked with images of Uiagalelei’s smiling face in Dr Pepper ads — the first major national TV campaign for a college player — repeating again and again while he struggled through one lumbering drive after another.

“Nobody knew in July, when he shot the commercial, what the season was going to look like,” said his mother, Tausha Lawrence. “But despite what people say, because of what he wanted, he’s turned down multiple offers. ‘I’m not doing it. For any amount of money.’ What he wanted was to get better. It’s unfortunate to hear people say different things. He wears a nice suit. It doesn’t mean he’s spending millions of dollars on it. DJ turned down multiple deals because that’s not what he was doing here. His love is football first.”

There were many days when the criticism wore on Tausha, she said. It got to a point where she refused to read stories — good or bad — about her son. She ached for him.

But when they talked, Uiagalelei never complained. This was all part of the job, he’d tell her. As a mom, Tausha wanted to fix things, to make it better for her boy. Uiagalelei always answered the same way.

“We’re just going to keep fighting, right mom?” he’d say. “That’s all we can do.”

And that’s what he did. With a taped up finger on his throwing hand and a brace on his knee and a receiving corps bereft of nearly a half-dozen scholarship players, he kept fighting. Clemson finished 10-3, a near miracle that looked like a disappointment outside the locker room. But inside, it was a shred of success that couldn’t have come without Uiagalelei continuing to fight.

“It’s the epitome of who he is,” Tausha said. “He keeps pushing. He’s silent about it, but he holds his head up.”

THE SEASON ENDED with a 20-13 Clemson win in the Cheez-It Bowl. Uiagalelei threw for 187 yards and an interception. Afterward, Swinney praised his QB’s dedication and assured the world that Uiagalelei would be Clemson’s starter in 2022.

That, Uiagalelei said, was a turning point. He set out to change his body, perfect his technique, and show the rest of the world what everyone inside Clemson already knew — that no one was going to work harder to bring the Tigers back to the mountaintop than him.

The early returns are encouraging.

Uiagalelei dropped 25 pounds in the offseason in hopes of increasing his mobility. Through four games, he’s already forced 17 missed tackles, more than twice his total from all of last season.

Uiagalelei has immersed himself in film study — he’s always the last one home at night, Venables said — which has helped Uiagalelei run through his progressions and get the ball out faster, avoiding mistakes.

“He’s really good at reading things pre-snap if you give him an easy picture to look at,” NC State linebacker Isaiah Moore said. “His decision-making has really grown since last year.”

Behind a revamped offensive line, Uiagalelei has had far more success in the pocket, too. A year ago, Uiagalelei played in a near constant state of improvisation. This season, said one ACC coach, he looks more deliberate, getting his feet set and delivering sharp throws. The numbers back it up. A year ago, according to ESPN Stats & Information, Uiagalelei was off target on 14% of his throws. So far this season, he’s missed on less than 9%. In 2021, his adjusted completion percentage — which excludes throwaways and drops and weights throws by distance — was among the worst in the country (106th nationally), but through four games this year, he ranks seventh.

And Uiagalelei is showing off his big arm again. Nearly 22% of his throws are 20 yards or more downfield, the second-highest rate among Power 5 QBs this season, and he’s completing half of them, with three going for touchdowns and none intercepted.

Perhaps as important, Uiagalelei is making a point to celebrate every success on the field. He’s confident — not in the performative way that rubbed so many fans wrong last season, but a genuine, visceral exuberance.

“That was one thing I wanted to be, was more emotional and let my emotions fly,” Uiagalelei said. “My whole life I haven’t really been emotional. Now, it’s just go play and have fun and show whatever my emotion is.”

Add it all up, and Uiagalelei has gone from one of the least productive passers in the country a year ago into one of this season’s most dangerous.

“Four games don’t make a season, and he’s got to prove it every week,” Swinney said, “but I’m just really happy for him to get off to a good start and have his mindset where it is and just find his mojo again.”

There are still doubters, still a contingent of the fan base that believes, if Clemson is to reach its ceiling, it must do so with freshman Cade Klubnik at QB. There are still some who are taking a wait-and-see approach. It’s just four games, after all, and this week’s opponent, NC State, offers the biggest roadblock yet on Uiagalelei’s redemption tour.

It’s easy to understand the skepticism. There simply aren’t many redemption arcs that look like this.

At the nadir of Uiagalelei’s struggles last season, Tausha called her son and searched for some words of encouragement. But what was there to say?

“I’m sorry, DJ,” is all she could offer. She repeated it, a salve for all that had gone wrong.

It wasn’t fair, she told him. She was angry, even if he refused to point fingers or shout down his critics.

“It’s OK, mom,” he told her. “I wouldn’t want this to be easy. And if I can figure this out now, it’s all going to be OK.”

After last week’s win over Wake Forest, Swinney gushed over Uiagalelei’s performance and said he’d “never been happier for a guy.”

There is a long road ahead. But for Uiagalelei, that’s the reward. The journey is supposed to be hard, and his has been more perilous than most. And for that, he said, he is blessed.

“I want to be the best person I can and put myself in the best position for this team,” Uiagalelei said. “And if I was going to play great or play bad, I just wanted to know I’d given everything I had for it.”

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