CLEMSON, S.C. — Clemson coach Dabo Swinney is prepared to do what it takes to improve his struggling offense – even if that means benching starting quarterback DJ Uiagalelei for more than a series or two.
Uiagalelei, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound junior, was removed from each of the past two games, the last a demoralizing 35-14 loss at No. 20 Notre Dame last week that ended the undefeated start of the 12th-ranked Tigers (8-1, 6-0 Atlantic Coast Conference).
Uiagalelei will start this week at home against Louisville (6-3, 3-3), Swinney said, but if he can’t find his form from earlier this season, he won’t stay in.
“He has to play better and get back on track. That’s the reality of the situation,” Swinney said Tuesday. “We’ve watched every play with him. If you don’t play better, someone else gets a chance.”
The past two games that’s been five-star freshman backup Cade Klubnik, with mixed results.
Uiagalelei left the Syracuse game on Oct. 22 in the third quarter after three turnovers and Clemson trailing 21-10. Klubnik sparked a fourth-quarter rally and a 27-21 victory that, combined with an upcoming bye week, was the perfect way for Uiagalelei and the Tigers’ offense to refresh and regroup for the stretch run.
Instead, Clemson played its worst game of the season in all phases – it had a punt blocked for a TD, Uiagalelei and Klubnik each threw interceptions leading to scores, and the Irish ran for 271 yards.
Swinney said that’s not all on Uiagalelei, who in 2020 threw for 439 yards at Notre Dame Stadium as a freshman in his second career start.
Uiagalelei “doesn’t punt protect and he’s not asked to stop the run,” Swinney said.
Still, for the Tigers to cling to their fading College Football Playoff hopes, somebody has to play at a high level.
The offense has not lost faith in Uiagalelei, according to left tackle Jordan McFadden.
“Being around DJ for the last three years, I still don’t have any doubt in him,” he said. “I believe in him 100%. He’s a battler.”
Uiaglelei was expected to seamlessly take over in 2021 for NFL No. 1 overall draft pick Trevor Lawrence and continue Clemson’s run of six straight ACC titles and CFP berths. Instead, Clemson opened 2-2 and slipped from all championship contention.
Uiagalelei committed to improving with a healthier mindset (pushing out criticisms), better technique and a slimmer body after losing 30 pounds in the offseason.
The changes seemed to work with Uiagalelei throwing 17 touchdowns against two interceptions in Clemson’s first seven wins. Then came Syracuse and he was picked twice and gave up a 90-yard fumble return TD with Clemson inside the Orange 10-yard line.
Despite Klubnik’s performance, Uiagalelei was back in charge last week. He finished 29 of 37 for 191 yards and a late touchdown pass to Joseph Ngata with Notre Dame comfortably out front. Uiagalelei also was picked for a 96-yard touchdown return.
With Clemson wanting to finish strong – and hold onto its fading CFP hopes – the offense needs to get going as it did in averaging almost 39 points a game through its first seven contests.
“We’re in a rut,” said Kyle Richardson, the tight ends coach and pass game coordinator. “And nobody’s sitting here trying to disagree with that. We’ve got to play better, we’ve got to coach better.”
No one, though, is pushing the panic button on this team or any of its players, Richardson said, including Uiagalelei.
The job this week will be once more getting Uiagalelei to play more decisively and get caught up in making the perfect read. He’s done it earlier in the season and Richardson is confident he’ll do it again.
Swinney hopes so, too.
He has faith in both Uiagalelei and Klubnik, who’s completed 9 of 20 throws with a touchdown and last week’s interception at Notre Dame.
“The only thing worse than 8-1 is 8-2,” Swinney said. “We want to get to 9-1 and be who I know we are.”