CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Clemson's new starting quarterback, D.J. Uiagalelei, sees a lot of similarities between himself and former Tigers QB Trevor Lawrence: Both are calm in the pocket, love to throw the long ball and focused on little else except winning.
Uiagalelei sees a seemless transition this season when the dynamic sophomore takes control of the Clemson offense. He's confident he'll can help the Tigers challenge for a seventh consecutive Atlantic Coast Conference title and College Football Playoff appearance.
Oh, the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder knows he has some unique qualities that he'll bring to the field, including his bruising running style. But Uiagalelei plans to keep the same steady hand that Lawrence displayed the past three seasons.
“I feel like for the most part there’s not a lot of differences, but we just both like to play football,” Uiagalelei said.
Uiagalelei had offers from top college programs across the country, but chose Clemson, he said, to learn behind Lawrence, who was the NFL No. 1 overall draft pick by Jacksonville. Uiagalelei watched Lawrence's calmness in all situations as the face of the college game.
Uiagalelei provided fans a glimpse of his talent in two, stellar relief appearances while Lawrence was sidelined with COVID-19 last fall. Uiagalelei rallied the Tigers f rom 18-points down in the second half to beat Boston College in his starting debut, then threw for 439 yards — the most ever against Notre Dame — in Clemson's 47-40 overtime loss to the Fighting Irish a week later.
Uiagalelei wasn't rattled, simply playing the game the way he knows how, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.
“He’s been there done that now, and he had a chance to have a front-row seat to Trevor all (last) year,” Swinney said. “I think that has served him well.”
Lawrence returned after the Notre Dame loss and led Clemson to another ACC crown (defeating the Irish in a rematch) before falling to Ohio State in the national semifinals.
Uiagalelei plans to stake his own place at Clemson going forward, thanks to the help he got from Lawrence.
“The biggest thing I learned is how to prepare and how to be a starter,” he said.
Some other things to watch for at Clemson this sesaon:
NEW BACK CITY
After four years of Travis Etienne leading the ground game, the Tigers will count on a host of runners to keep driving forward. Etienne left as a two-time ACC player of the year (2018, 2019) and the league's career rushing leader. Etienne's longtime backup Lyn-J Dixon will likely get first call, but the deep group also includes five-star freshman Will Shipley, who teammates have called the fastest player on the team.
Clemson's defense is experienced and talented, helped by the return of several players like sixth-year “super” seniors in linebacker James Skalski and safety Nolan Turner. The Tigers defensive line features seven players who've started games, including Justin Turner, who had given up the game after last season, then changed his mind and returned. End Xavier Thomas is also healthy and eager after a season lost to a long fight with COVID-19.
IS THAT ROSS?
Clemson expects to get back one of its best playmakers in junior receiver Justyn Ross. The 6-foot-4 wideout from Phenix City, Alabama, missed all last season after having spinal surgery. He was cleared to return and plans to start against Georgia on Sept. 4. Ross has 112 catches for 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns his first two seasons.
The Tigers appear solid in that area with the return of kicker B.T. Potter and punter Will Spiers. Potter has made 32 of 45 career field goals and all but one of 148 career extra points the past three seasons. He is nearly an automatic touchback machine with 231 kickoffs into the end zone in 299 attempts. Spiers is a five-year starter at punter and has averaged 41.4 yards a punt in 56 career games.
If Clemson clears its opening hurdle in the fourth-ranked Bulldogs in Charlotte, North Carolina on Sept. 4, there are not many challenges the rest of the way. The Tigers don't face North Carolina, the ACC's other Top 10 team or Notre Dame as it did twice last season. Critics might point to road games at North Carolina State or Louisville as places Clemson could trip up, but the Tigers should be solid favorites in their last 11 games.
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