QB Uiagalelei in charge of Clemson with Lawrence gone

© Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

COLUMBIA, S.C. — D.J. Uiagalelei took charge of Clemson’s offense Saturday as the Tigers closed spring practice with the Orange and White game.

It was the first spring in several years that Clemson was without its two main offensive playmakers, quarterback Trevor Lawrence and tailback Travis Etienne. Both were instrumental is helping the Tigers remain atop the Atlantic Coast Conference and win the national title after the 2018 season.

Lawrence and Etienne were both ACC players of the year – Lawrence this past season, Etienne in 2018 and 2019 – and the two are expected to be first-round NFL draft picks. Lawrence is projected to go No. 1 overall to Jacksonville while Etienne figures to be one of the first running backs chosen.

Together, the pair had a hand in 48 of the Tigers’ 64 offensive touchdowns last year. That’s a lot of firepower for Clemson to make up for next fall.

But Uiagalelei, a 6-foot-4, 250-pound powerhouse, has embraced the challenge.

“Obviously, he’s got the worst job in America,” offensive lineman Matt Bockhorst joked last month. “He’s got some pretty big shoes to fill, but he’s a very talented kid and a steady worker. And I know all of us have full confidence in D.J. and we’re excited to see him let it rip.”

Uiagalelei’s Orange team fell to the White squad 14-13. He completed 20 of 28 passes for 174 yards and his lone touchdown came on the game’s opening series, a 14-yard throw to freshman Beaux Collins.

“I think I need to get better, get better at everything, I feel like,” he said. “I want to be the best I can for my team.”

Uiagalelei gave Clemson a taste of his talents while pressed into action last season when Lawrence missed two games after contracting COVID-19.

Uiagalelei rallied the Tigers from 18 points down to beat Boston College 34-28 last October. Uiagalelei, who threw for 342 yards against the Eagles, topped that showing a week later at Notre Dame, where he passed for 439 yards in a drama-filled, 47-40, double overtime loss.

Uiagalelei was grateful to spend last year learning from Lawrence and is ready to take control of the six-time defending ACC champions.

“He stands tall, he’s very confident,” receiver E.J. Williams said. “It’s just a great vibe to have in a quarterback.”

Uiagalelei, a rising sophomore, soaked up as much as he could from Lawrence, both on and off the field. Uiagalelei watched how Lawrence handled himself at practice and even how the 6-6, strong-armed quarterback got his schoolwork done.

Uiagalelei is not concerned with matching Lawrence, just continuing the success of Clemson’s offense.

“I’m just trying to do my job, be a leader for the guys,” Uiagalelei said. “Be a voice and just be the leader of the offense.”

There’s work ahead for Uiagalelei, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said.

“We want him to be that guy that fully committed to being a threat with his legs and his arms,” Swinney said. “He’s 250 pounds. So now, it’s about getting in the weight room, transforming his body and being the best version of D.J. Uiagalelei we’ve seen to this point.”

Clemson will have a consortium of runners looking to match the production of Etienne, who left as the ACC’s all-time rushing leader. Lyn-J Dixon has the most experience as Etienne’s primary backup the past three seasons. The tailback group for new assistant C.J. Spiller also includes five-star freshman Will Shipley from Weddington, North Carolina.

Sophomore Kobe Pace led the group Saturday with 69 yards rushing.

There was some troubling injury news for the Tigers as quarterback Taisun Phommachanh left late in the game with what Swinney said later was a torn Achilles tendon. Phommachanh, in his third season at Clemson, was expected to be Uiagalelei’s backup.

Lane Kiffin staying at Ole Miss with ‘a lot of work left to do’

Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports
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Mississippi coach Lane Kiffin says he has informed school officials he will be staying at Ole Miss, putting an end to speculation that he was the leading candidate to fill the head coaching vacancy at Auburn.

“Same as I said last week: I’m staying here and we have a lot of work left to do,” Kiffin told The Associated Press in a voice message.

Kiffin added he has not signed a contract extension with the school.

The 47-year-old Kiffin is 23-12 in three seasons as Rebels coach. No. 20 Mississippi finished its regular season 8-4, losing four of its last five, including a 24-22 loss to Mississippi State.

Auburn was playing at No. 8 Alabama in the Iron Bowl, and its coaching search figured to heat up soon after its season concluded.

Auburn fired coach Bryan Harsin earlier this month and has gone 2-1 since under interim coach Carnell Williams, the former star running back for the Tigers.

With Kiffin off the market, Auburn is eyeing a former Mississippi coach to be its next coach.

A person familiar with the search told the AP that Auburn is interested in Liberty coach Hugh Freeze. The person spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity because Auburn was not making details of its search public.

Freeze coached at Ole Miss for five seasons before leaving in disgrace in 2017 after the school discovered he used a university cellphone to call an escort service.

He landed at Liberty and has gone 34-14 in four seasons with the Flames.

Nebraska signs Matt Rhule to 8-year deal

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
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After six straight losing seasons and more than 20 years removed from its 1990s heyday, Nebraska is turning to Matt Rhule to rebuild its program and make it competitive in the Big Ten Conference.

Rhule signed an eight-year contract to be the Cornhuskers’ next coach and will be introduced at a news conference, the school announced.

The 47-year-old Rhule quickly turned around downtrodden programs at Temple and Baylor before leaving for the NFL to coach the Carolina Panthers. The Panthers fired him in October after he started his third season with four losses in five games.

“It is a tremendous honor to be chosen to lead the Nebraska football program,” Rhule said in a statement. “When you think of great, tradition-rich programs in college football, Nebraska is right at the top of the list. The fan base is second to none, and I consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to coach in Memorial Stadium on Tom Osborne Field. My family and I are so grateful to become a part of the Husker Family, and we can’t wait to get started.”

Rhule was 11-27 with Carolina and left with about $40 million remaining on the seven-year, guaranteed $62 million contract he signed in 2020. The contract made Rhule the sixth-highest paid coach in the NFL when he signed in 2020, according to Forbes.

Nebraska said it would release details of Rhule’s contract.

“It is a privilege to welcome Coach Matt Rhule, his wife, Julie, and their family to Nebraska,” athletic director Trev Alberts said. “Coach Rhule has created a winning culture throughout his coaching career, and he will provide great leadership for the young men in our football program.

“Matt is detail-oriented, his teams are disciplined and play a physical brand of football. Matt also has the personality and relationship-building skills to build a great staff and excel in recruiting.”

About an hour after Rhule’s hiring was announced, wide receiver Trey Palmer announced on Instagram that he would declare for the NFL draft. Palmer, who transferred from LSU after last season, had three 150-yard games this year and set the Huskers’ single-season record with 1,043 yards.

The Huskers are among eight Football Bowl Subdivision programs with at least 900 wins, and they have won or shared five national championships. The last one came in 1997 under Hall of Fame coach Tom Osborne.

Five coaches have come and gone since then, most recently the quarterback of that ’97 team, Scott Frost.

Alberts fired Frost on Sept. 11 after the Huskers opened 1-2, with losses to Northwestern in Ireland and to Georgia Southern at home. They were 3-6 under interim coach Mickey Joseph and finished the season 4-8 following a 24-17 win at Iowa.

Nebraska was 16-31 in four-plus seasons under Frost, never finishing higher than fifth in the Big Ten West or going to a bowl.

In four seasons at Temple, Rhule coached the Owls to 28 wins. That included 26 from 2014-16. Temple was 10-4 in 2015 and reached the American Athletic Conference’s inaugural championship game. In 2016, Rhule led the Owls to a 10-3 record and an AAC championship. The conference title was the first in 49 seasons for the Temple program, and the Owls reached bowl games in consecutive seasons for the first time in school history.

Rhule was named Baylor’s coach in December 2016 in the wake of an investigation that found the private Baptist university had not responded adequately to allegations of sexual assault by players, resulting in the firing of Art Briles.

Rhule’s trajectory was similar at Baylor, where he went from 1-11 in 2017 to 7-6 with a bowl game the next season. In his third and final season, Baylor was ranked in the top 10, played in the Big 12 championship game and finished 11-3 after a Sugar Bowl loss to Georgia.

Rhule’s collegiate success provided him the opportunity to take over as the Carolina Panthers’ head coach in 2020. He guided the Panthers to five wins in each of his first two seasons before this year’s 1-4 start got him fired.

Rhule has ties to the Big Ten. He moved from New York City to State College, Pennsylvania, as a teenager. He played linebacker at Penn State from 1994-97 and began his coaching there as a volunteer assistant.