To say that Clemson didn’t get the kind of quarterback play they had become accustomed to getting would be putting it mildly.
After two fantastic starts against Boston College and Notre Dame as a freshman, DJ Uiagalelei took over as the Tigers’ full-time starter in 2021. The results were not what anyone expected, as Uiagalelei threw for just 2,246 yards, completed just 55.6% of his passes, and threw more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (9).
For whatever reason, Uiagalelei struggled with accuracy issues from the opening game, which really hampered the passing game. By the end of the season, the Tigers were not even attempting to push the ball down the field, as the coaching staff just seemed to lose all faith in the teams ability to do so.
The struggles were so bad at times that fans were genuinely curious as to why Taisun Phommachanh did not have more opportunities. However, let’s be honest, Phommachanh was just six months removed from an Achilles tear when the season started, and didn’t do any better than Uiagalelei did throwing the ball when he was on the field.
The brutal truth is the coaching staff was basically handcuffed, as there was no better option on the bench. Hunter Helms and Billy Wiles never got a real opportunity themselves.
It would be unfair to put all of the offenses struggles in 2021 on the shoulders of Uiagalelei, though. The offensive line was terrible coming out of the gate and was ravaged by injury. The wide receivers also struggled and were also injury riddled. Uiagalelei himself was pretty beat up by seasons end, likely even worse than had been let on by the coaching staff.
At the end of the day, however, the offense goes as the quarterback goes and no matter the reasoning the Tigers just didn’t get very good quarterback play in 2021. Even when you factor in all the drops the receivers had, Uiagalelei still wasn’t very accurate when compared to past production at the position.
Uiagalelei’s best game came against Louisville, when he threw for 220 yards, two touchdowns and hit on 60% of his passes. Ironically, that was the game in which he injured his knee and he would never build off of that performance. He would then injure the index finger on his throwing hand a shortly thereafter.
The Tigers also missed the quarterback run as an element of the offense. At 6-foot-5 and 250-pounds, Uiagalelei just isn’t the runner that past Clemson quarterbacks have been. However, that doesn’t mean he can’t make plays in the running game and that is something that just wasn’t seen very often over the course of the season.
Uiagalelei did rush for 308 yards and four touchdowns, more than the 203 yards that Trevor Lawrence rushed for in 2020. However, nowhere close to the more than 500 yards that Lawrence rushed for in 2019. In the Clemson offense, defenses must at least respect the threat of the run, and that was not the case in 2021.
Going forward, if the Tigers are to return to their familiar spot atop the ACC standings next season, the quarterback play must improve. Fortunately, with Cade Klubnik having already arrived on campus, it appears there will be another option in 2022. If Uiagalelei can’t regain the form that we saw from him as a freshman during the 2020 season, Klubnik’s time could come sooner than originally expected.
2021 Season Grade: D+
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