Fall 2021 SS Magazine

5 College QBs to Watch in 2021: DJ Uiagalelei gives Clemson another faith-driven leader

Leading up to the 2021 football season, Sports Spectrum will highlight
five Christ-following college quarterbacks to watch in 2021.

As a consensus five-star prospect in high school, DJ Uiagalelei had his pick of the litter when it came to where he’d play college football. At many schools, he was likely to be the starter as a freshman.

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Yet, he chose Clemson — a program that already had a starting quarterback. Not just any quarterback, either, but eventual No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Trevor Lawrence.

That’s because Uiagalelei’s decision wasn’t just made for football reasons. At Clemson, he knew he’d be in an environment where he could grow in his faith in God.

“I remember when I first came to Clemson,” Uiagalelei told All Clemson. “The biggest thing for me that stood out was that coaches here, they openly talked about their faith in Jesus Christ. That was the biggest, that was huge for me, to be able to hear coaches openly talk about that.”

The Tigers program, led by faith-driven head coach Dabo Swinney (who’s on the cover of the Sports Spectrum Magazine Fall 2021 issue), has been full of guys who aren’t shy about their faith, including Lawrence.

When Swinney and other coaches talked about their faith, Uiagalelei said he could tell it was authentic. He wasn’t just getting a sales pitch with something he wanted to hear.

“It was really genuine, you knew that they weren’t just saying that because they just say that, but they were real genuine about it,” Uiagalelei told All Clemson. “So for me, I’d never heard coaches talk openly about their faith. And that was the biggest thing for me, I remember telling my mom that night, ‘Yeah, I know I’m coming to Clemson, this is definitely where God wants me to be at.'”

Now, after studying and learning under Lawrence for a year, he’s ready to step into a role that brings with it plenty of attention, pressure and expectations. For Uiagalelei, there’s a comfort that comes from having played a good number of snaps last season when Lawrence was out due to COVID-19 protocols.

He appeared in nine games, including two starts — against Boston College and No. 4 Notre Dame — and finished the season completing 78 of his 117 pass attempts for 914 yards and five touchdowns. He threw for 342 yards and two touchdowns against Boston College and then followed that up with 439 yards and two touchdowns in an overtime loss on the road to Notre Dame.

He became just the second Football Bowl Subdivision player since 2000 to throw at least 115 passes and record at least five passing touchdowns and no interceptions, and was just the seventh true freshman to start for Clemson at quarterback.

With all of that also comes high expectations. He’s already getting buzz in the Heisman Trophy conversation.

Swinney said Uiagalelei is ready to meet those expectations, and his experience is a big reason for that. He pointed to previous star quarterbacks in his program like Lawrence, Deshaun Watson, and Tahj Boyd, and noted how they became the full-time starter with little or no time under center beforehand.

“The cool thing about DJ is, he’s already played, you know; those guys had not played and he’s already played, he’s already started,” Swinney told All Clemson. “He’s had a front-row seat for a year to what it looks like, you know, first pick in the draft. How [Lawrence] prepared, handled himself. How he handled the failure, criticism, success, you know, just his life in general. And that is, I think, going to serve him well.”

Swinney said even though Uiagalelei is just a sophomore, he plays at a much more mature level. His decision to go to Clemson, play and learn under Lawrence for a year, and develop before starting was the first clue that Uiagalelei was a different breed.

Uiagalelei is ready to build on last season.

“There’s definitely a lot of things I can take from last season,” he said at ACC Media Day. “I learned a lot backing up Trevor, seeing the way he runs the field, seeing the way he treats off the field, too. He’s a true definition of a professional in my eyes.”

Clemson, ranked No. 3 in the Associated Press preseason poll, opens its 2021 season against No. 5 Georgia on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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