Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei answers doubters, leads No. 5 Tigers

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CLEMSON, S.C. — DJ Uiagalelei looked so confident and smooth that crisp fall afternoon in 2020 in his first college start against Boston College.

Nearly two years later, with the fifth-ranked Tigers (5-0, 3-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) heading to play the Eagles (2-3, 1-2) again on Saturday, Uiagalelei is just as poised – although these days he’s armed with the experience of coming through difficult times on the field.

“It was definitely a surreal moment,” Uiagalelei remembered. “I had no clue, but it was cool.”

Uiagalelei’s initial start came when national championship passer Trevor Lawrence was out with COVID-19. Uiagalelei dazzled that day, throwing for 342 yards and two touchdowns to lead the top-ranked Tigers from 18 points down to a 34-28 victory.

The next week, Uiagalelei passed for 439 yards – the most ever at Notre Dame Stadium – in a 47-41 loss to the Fighting Irish.

Lawrence returned soon after, but Uiagalelei’s path was set. He was every bit the star he was projected to be since his early days at California high school power St. John Bosco.

Lawrence became the NFL draft’s No. 1 player taken and the Tigers belonged to Uiagalelei.

Uiagalelei’s name was atop Heisman Trophy lists, he received lucrative NIL deals and national TV commercials, but things devolved quickly for the 6-foot-5 Uiagalelei in 2021. Clemson lost twice in September and was out of contention for the ACC title, which it had won the previous six years.

Part of the blame was placed on Uiagalelei, who was tentative in his reads and inaccurate with throws. He completed less than 56% of his passes and ended with more interceptions than touchdowns (10 to nine).

Clemson’s critics pounced, already pointing toward the team’s next top prospect – backup freshman Cade Klubnik – to take control this season.

Uiagalelei paid no attention to the outsiders and continued to work to get better.

“No one wants to hear someone complain, whine, make excuses for something,” he said this summer. “So, for me, I always want to put my head down and work. Just keep coming out there, keep putting my best effort forward and just working.”

The approach that made Uiagalelei a football success didn’t change, said Jason Negro, Uiagalelei’s coach at St. John Bosco.

“That’s the proudest thing I felt was that DJ didn’t blame anyone else,” Negro told The AP by phone. “He took the blame and kept putting the team first like he always has.”

Uiagalelei, despite leading Clemson to a 10-3 mark and six straight wins to end the season, committed to improve. He pledged to lose weight – he dropped about 30 pounds from his peak weight last year to 230 this season – and refine his technique.

Uiagalelei has answered all the questions so far in Clemson’s perfect start. He’s thrown for 11 touchdowns – more than all of last year – and just one interception. Uiagalelei’s completion percentage is up near 66% and he’s run for three touchdowns.

“I’ve never been happier for a guy, the kid deserves it,” Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said after Uiagalelei had five TD passes in a 51-45 overtime win at No. 15 Wake Forest on Sept. 24. “That’s the guy we recruited, it’s who he was in high school, and all these people forget about him and have written him off like he’s some terrible player. He’s not.”

Negro said Uiagalelei never once lost belief in himself during the offseason. His old coaches and friends out West would tell him, don’t worry. “He always assured me, `Coach, watch, this season we’re going to be a really good football team,’ ” Negro said.

With Uiagalelei in charge, the Tigers are among 16 undefeated teams left in college football’s Bowl Subdivision and just one of two in the ACC. Gone, as well, are the calls for anyone else but Uiagalelei to lead Clemson’s offense.

“It has been a little different because I have been playing a lot better,” Uiagalelei said. “But for the most part I’m trying to keep my head down, keep my circle small, and look to get better each and every day.”

Missouri linebacker Chad Bailey suspended after arrest

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COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri linebacker Chad Bailey was suspended from the team after he was arrested on suspicion of driving while intoxicated, the team said.

The 23-year-old, who was a team captain last season, was booked at about 2:45 a.m. and released after posting $500 bond, according to online records from the Boone County Sheriff’s Office.

“We are aware of the situation involving Chad Bailey,” Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz said in a statement to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “He’s been suspended according to Department of Athletics policy. We have high expectations for all of our student-athletes, on and off the field, and we will follow all departmental and campus policies.”

Bailey was Mizzou’s third-leading tackler with 57 stops last season. He started all 11 games he played, missing two with an injury. He’ll be a sixth-year senior this fall after opting to return for his final year of eligibility, the Post-Dispatch reported.

The Missouri student-athlete handbook says any athlete who is arrested must serve a minimum one-week suspension.

Bailey was pulled over at about 1 a.m. not far from the Columbia campus for an expired license plate and lane violation, a police statement said. Bailey told the officer he had consumed alcohol and then performed poorly on a field sobriety test, the Post-Dispatch reported.

Nebraska’s leading rusher Anthony Grant suspended indefinitely

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LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska opened spring practice with running back Anthony Grant suspended indefinitely to work on academics and other issues, first-year coach Matt Rhule announced.

Grant led the team in rushing with 915 yards and six touchdowns last season. He also caught 18 passes for 104 yards.

“Working on academics and general things. Nothing bad other than just our standards as a program,” Rhule said. “That will be day by day. Good kid. Just have to get him going in the right direction.”

Rhule said kick returner and reserve receiver Tommi Hill also is suspended. He did not specify a reason.

Backup tight ends Chris Hickman and James Carnie and reserve cornerback Tyreke Johnson left the team.