Why QB DJ Uiagalelei’s improved mobility could play a ‘big role’ in Clemson offense

·4 min read

DJ Uiagalelei was far from one-dimensional in 2021.

But with a revamped body and a new mindset, the Clemson football junior said he’s ready to take the next step in his dual-threat quarterbacking come 2022.

“I think it’ll definitely play a big role,” Uiagalelei said. “In our offense, the quarterback’s got to be able to run.”

Improved mobility might not be the No. 1 focus for Uiagalelei entering his second season as No. 4 Clemson’s starter. But it’s one of many aspects of his game that, if improved, could help the preseason ACC champion Tigers hit their annually high expectations.

At 6-foot-4, Uiagalelei has never been an easy tackle. But, he admitted, playing his sophomore season at 250 pounds — closer to 260 by December — certainly wasn’t ideal for the type of quarterback rushing production that’s been so crucial to past Tigers offenses.

In 13 games last fall for Clemson (10-3, 6-2 ACC), Uiagalelei rushed 105 times for 308 net yards and four touchdowns while averaging 23.7 yards per game and 2.9 yards per carry.

That metric jumps to 465 yards when you exclude the team-high 157 yards Uiagalelei lost as a runner. That came primarily on sacks, including seven in a season-opening loss to Georgia.

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei breaks away from N.C. State’s Jakeen Harris (6) for a 37-yard gain in the fourth quarter on Saturday September 25, 2021 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C.
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei breaks away from N.C. State’s Jakeen Harris (6) for a 37-yard gain in the fourth quarter on Saturday September 25, 2021 at Carter-Finley Stadium in Raleigh, N.C.

2021 flashes for Uiagalelei

Despite playing over his target weight, Uiagalelei ended 2021 with a run of 10-plus yards in eight of Clemson’s 13 games. He came up big with his legs a few times in the fourth quarter: converting a quarterback draw on third-and-14 on a go-ahead touchdown drive against Georgia Tech; ripping off a season-long 37-yard run in a game-tying drive against N.C. State; punching in the go-ahead score on a designed run against Louisville.

Those flashes were among many motivations for Uiagalelei in dropping nearly 30 pounds ahead of the 2022 season. After cutting out sweets and zeroing in on portion control at mealtime from January onward, he weighed in at 234 pounds, his lowest weight at Clemson, earlier this month.

“That was a big thing for me (to focus on) this year,” Uiagalelei said. “Being able to be a threat on my feet whenever I could be, if I have to escape the pocket or scramble or make a play.”

It’s already showing, according to coach Dabo Swinney. In recapping Clemson’s first intrasquad scrimmage last Saturday, Swinney said Uiagalelei “made two or three big plays with his legs” while also displaying a “calmness” that impressed him.

Track record at Clemson

Speaking Monday, offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter added that Uiagalelei “has a lot of confidence right now in moving around, escaping the pocket and creating plays with his feet” now that he’s fully recovered from a knee injury that bothered him through the 2021 season.

“He showed that a lot on Saturday,” Streeter said, “and, man, he did some really, really good stuff. I’m excited to see how he does it this fall.”

Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) avoids the tackle by Boston College defensive end Marcus Valdez (97) during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Boston College Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) avoids the tackle by Boston College defensive end Marcus Valdez (97) during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Boston College Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Hakim Wright Sr.)

In his previous roles as Clemson quarterbacks coach and passing game coordinator, first-year offensive coordinator Streeter has seen how effective quarterback runs — both scripted and unscripted — can force a defense to play on its toes.

Designed runs and scrambles were key parts of Clemson’s offense with Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, both of whom led the Tigers to College Football Playoff national championships and were Heisman Trophy finalists.

“Every quarterback’s a little bit different on what type of runs we call for the quarterback,” Streeter said, “but that’s a big part of this offense.”

Uiagalelei has never been a run-first quarterback. He was the country’s top pro-style passer coming out of high school in California and flashed those skills as a true freshman.

Now, above all else, he’s keen on improving his mechanics after ranking as the ACC’s least efficient quarterback during a nine-touchdown, 10-interception 2021 campaign. If his overall improvement leads to a more dual-threat role, though, he’s all for it

“I feel light on my feet, man,” Uiagalelei said. “I feel ready to go.”