DJ Uiagalelei stepped up in a big way on Saturday to help fifth-ranked Clemson down No. 21 Wake Forest in double-overtime.
The Tigers’ junior quarterback completed 26-of-41 passes for a season-high 371 passing yards with a career-high five passing touchdowns, leading his team to a 51-45 victory over the Demon Deacons at Truist Field in Winston-Salem.
“I’ve never been happier for a guy,” Swinney said after the game. “The kid deserves it, and that’s who he is. That’s the guy we recruited, that’s who he was in high school. All these people forgot about him and wrote him off like he’s some terrible player. He’s not – we weren’t very good around him and he got in a bad spot mentally, and it’s so good to see him where he is right now as an unquestioned leader and complete belief, and he’s just got his mojo back.”
Uiagalelei also added 52 rushing yards on 14 carries, showing off the running style that Swinney compares to former Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd.
“He’s a big, strong dude, and he’s so confident running the ball now,” Swinney said. “He looks like Tajh out there. He’s not Trevor (Lawrence) or Deshaun (Watson) running, but he looks a lot like Tajh as far as that toughness, that willingness, that fight with the ball in his hands to go get the first down, to extend plays. I mean, he threw a touchdown pass with a couple of guys hanging on him, keeping his eyes up.”
The throw that Swinney alluded to – Uiagalelei’s two-point conversion toss to Beaux Collins, with Wake Forest defenders draped over Uiagalelei – tied the game at 28 late in the third quarter.
In overtime, with Clemson trailing 45-38, Uiagalelei hit Collins for a 21-yard touchdown pass that sent the game to a second overtime, when Uiagalelei connected with Davis Allen for another 21-yard touchdown that proved to be the game-winning score. .
Swinney felt Uiagalelei, who has now thrown multiple touchdown passes in three straight games for the first time in his career, was in complete control during Saturday’s game.
“He’s been that way, really – that’s what I saw all summer, all camp,” Swinney said. “And as I said going into the Georgia Tech game, I just need to see him do it under the lights. I needed to see him, how’s he gonna be when he makes a terrible throw or makes a bad decision, turns it over. Last year, it kind of led to worse, and how’s he gonna handle that this year? And he had that little start in the first half of the Georgia Tech game where it was like, oh man, and then he just pushed through it and he got better and he got better in the Furman game, got better in the La. Tech game. So, it’s just awesome.”
Saturday’s 300-yard passing game was Uiagalelei’s first of the season and the third of his career, and it was his first 300-yard game since his career-high 439-yard effort at Notre Dame in 2020.
On Saturday, Uiagalelei became the first Clemson quarterback to throw five touchdown passes in a game since Trevor Lawrence at Georgia Tech in 2020, while he became the first Clemson player to throw for 300 or more yards, rush for 50 or more yards and throw three touchdowns in a game since Deshaun Watson accomplished the feat against Louisville on Oct. 1, 2016.
It’s certainly been a bounce-back season for Uiagalelei, who struggled during his first full season as a starter a year ago after bursting onto the scene as a freshman while filling in for Trevor Lawrence across two starts against Boston College and Notre Dame.
After throwing more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (9) last season, Uiagalelei has already thrown 10 touchdown passes with just one interception through four games this season.
Swinney says nobody is more deserving of the success he’s having right now than the former five-star prospect from California.
“I just know who he is, I know what I see, and I know how talented this kid is,” Swinney said. “I mean, this is not a theory. It’s not some pie in the sky. I’ve watched him. Everybody in the country recruited this kid. He is a great football player who had a bad year, and nobody wants to hear all the reasons why, they just want to pile on DJ and everybody wants a quarterback change and everybody wants this and that.
“I just have faith in him, and I know who he is. I know his heart, so it’s easy. So, I just tried to counsel him. If he wasn’t doing everything, it would be different. If I didn’t see his heart, his character, his will, his toughness, his preparation, that’s different. But man, this kid, he deserves it.”
Swinney could not be prouder of Uiagalelei, who has been through plenty of challenges and adversity – not to mention a much-publicized quarterback competition with uber talented true freshman Cade Klubnik – to get where he is now.
Swinney had a message for those who criticized Uiagalelei and thought he was done after a disappointing 2021 campaign.
“Listen, Cade Klubnik, he’s as good as we’ve ever signed at Clemson. I mean, he is that good,” Swinney said. “That’s how good he is. This kid is special. And for DJ to have to deal with all of that and all these distractions and all the drama and all the narratives out there – you just can’t be more proud of a guy.
“And again, four games don’t make a season. We’ve got a long way to go. But after four games, if you don’t recognize this kid’s special ability, then you’re blind and you just want something else to write about. This kid’s special, so hopefully everybody can tear up all those articles that you’ve written or take some ownership for them at this point. Because this kid deserves it. He’s a winner. He is the unquestioned leader on this team, and I would never, as the head coach, stand up for something like that if I didn’t see it every day.”
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