BY ROBBIE TINSLEY
Much has been said about D.J. Uiagalelei’s offseason weight loss. The Clemson quarterback has chalked his significant slimdown to improved diet and portion control.
Perhaps it was that, or perhaps it was ridding himself of a 25-pound monkey that took up residence on his shoulders for the 2021 season.
If casual observers watched Uiagalelei play during Saturday’s 51-45 overtime victory over Wake Forest and remembered back to watching a Clemson quarterback from a season before, only Uiagelelei’s distinctive last name would have kept them from talking themselves into the fact this must be a different man behind center for the Tigers.
If you ever needed evidence of how much of a factor confidence can play in an athlete’s performance, look no further than No. 5 for the Tigers. A season after he seemed like he could do little right, never appearing settled in the pocket and missing most of his throws high and wide, Uiagaleleican suddenly do no wrong.After throwing just nine touchdowns in 13 games last season, he has 10 through the season’s first four games. Despite his strong start to the season, he went into Saturday still looking for his first 300-yard performance since becoming the full-time starter, but Uiagelelei burst through that ceiling with 371 yards and five touchdowns, including two in the Tigers’ two overtime possessions.
In an age of college football where struggling players often see a change of scenery as the solution to their problems, you have to credit Uiagalelei for deciding to stick with it in Clemson and putting in the work to get himself back into the spotlight. Similarly, you have to credit head coach Dabo Swinney for putting his faith in Uiagalelei after such a tough 2021, especially with a highly-touted freshman he could’ve turned to in Cade Klubnik.
Of course, the man throwing the ball is only one part of the equation, and …
The Clemson receiving corps is living up to their end of the bargain again.
Clemson may not be back to the #WRU level of production just yet, but Saturday was also a coming out party for the guys Uiagalelei was throwing to.
There were plenty of times in 2021 where Uiagalelei did unleash a worthy pass, only to be let down by his pass-catchers. Several times during Saturday’s game, it felt like Clemson was on the ropes, only for Uiagalelei to heave a ball down field and see Joseph Ngata, Beaux Collins or Antonio Williams beat the defender for a contested catch to extend drives and get Clemson back into scoring position. Not to be outdone, tight end Davis Allen twice boxed out Wake Forest defenders for leaping touchdowns down the stretch, including the game-winner in overtime.
While it may not be as important as Uiagalelei having confidence in himself, his increased confidence in his receivers has this offense operating on a level we never saw in 2021.
Which is a good thing because …
After a season of the defense carrying the offense, the offense had to come to the rescue.
The Tigers’ defense bailed out the offense time after time in 2021, but Saturday’s game was a reversal of that script. After a season of never needing more than four touchdowns to win a game, the Clemson offense had to suddenly come up with six of them —plus three huge B.T. Potter field goals —to get out of Winston-Salem with a victory.
It was the pass defense in particular that let the Tigers down. The injury issues, especially to veteran members of the secondary, were well documented, but if Saturday marked the first real test of new defensive coordinators Wes Goodwin and Mickey Conn, you’d be generous to give them or the Tiger secondary any kind of passing grade.
Wake Forest quarterback Sam Hartman ran the Deacons’ slow-mesh offense to perfection for most of the afternoon.His 337 yards passing were an inaccurate reflection of the success he had considering how many times Clemson defenders were called for pass interference, and his six touchdowns tied a record for most by any quarterback against Clemson.
With another great quarterback on the slate next week as Devin Leary and the N.C. State Wolfpack come to Death Valley for a top-ten showdown, immediate improvements are needed.
Clemson’s veteran leadership was on display in this victory.
From Will Shipley fighting across the goal-line for a critical score to Tyler Davis getting a crucial sack to stop Wake Forest’s last drive in regulation and send the game to overtime to K.J. Henry interrupting Uiagalelei’s post-game TV appearance to sing his quarterback’s praises, it’s clear Clemson is not lacking for leaders on the team.
Talent and scheme make you a good football team, but leadership is the elevating factor to take you from good to great, especially when two good teams are locked in a tight game like you saw on Saturday.
And tight games may well be frequently on the menu for the Tigers in 2022.
Expect another season of white-knuckle affairs.
If Clemson fans had hoped for a return to the days where the Tigers would blow out most of their ACC foes, they may be waiting for another season.
The main reason for that isn’t that the Tigers have taken a significant step back, which could have been the case in 2021; it’s that the rest of the ACC has taken a step forward, particularly in the Tigers’ division.
No. 10 N.C. State comes to town next week. A trip to Florida State in mid-October looks daunting after the Seminoles’ perfect start. Syracuse is undefeated. Notre Dame and Miami have faltered, but both are supremely talented and have another month to figure themselves out before they have to face Clemson in November.
While Clemson’s ultimate goal is to get back to the College Football Playoff, no one should consider winning the conference or even the Atlantic Division as table stakes. There’s a reason why those championships get a place on the side of the stadium, too.
The Tigers took a big step toward reclaiming the crowns by knocking off reigning Atlantic champs Wake Forest, but there’s still a long journey ahead.
But air travel is a much more efficient way to make such journeys, and it sure seems like the Tigers are much more comfortable through the air again.
Robbie Tinsley is an award-winning columnist from his time as the sports editor of The Journal in Seneca, S.C. He now works on a freelance basis from his home in Massachusetts.