CLEMSON. When running back Kobe Pace listened to his quarterback, DJ Uiagalelei, he offers advice that sounds more like a reminder.
“Be yourself, man,” Pace said. – No one should go out in front of 80,000 people and throw the ball, except you. You must do it. So this is what you do. It’s your responsibility.”
Waiagalelei, a former five-star recruit, entered last season with potential greatness compared to the realized greatness of Trevor Lawrence. After an uneven first season as Clemson’s starter, the big-arm defensive end faced questions about whether he was actually good enough.
There was nothing but empty concrete staring down the Waiagalelei and Clemson offense on Aug. 13 as they entered Memorial Stadium for a preseason scrimmage. But this was the moment when Uiagalelei answered some questions.
He did all the crime.
“Honestly, I could see it coming,” Swinney said. “I told the defense it was very competitive.”
In Swinney’s experience, the defense is usually ahead of the offense early in preseason camp. And it’s arguably one of Clemson’s most talented defenses in recent memory.
But the results of the first fight, according to Swinney, continue optimistic estimates of the growth of Uiagalelei.
Part of his maturity is actually cutting weight, going from over 260 pounds to just under 235. With this noticeably lighter frame, Ouagalelei has played in a scrimmage that would have been impossible a year ago.
“I’m a proud DJ,” Swinney said. “He made two or three big plays with his feet.”
Uiagalelei’s cannon arm was never in question, but his legs weren’t his best feature in 2021. At times, his base was out of sync with his upper half when he pitched, resulting in longer release and spread accuracy. Uiagalelei was 15th in the ACC in passing efficiency last season.
But “Big Cinco” couldn’t hold on in the running game. He gained just 2.9 yards per carry on the ground.
“Our offense, the quarterback has to be able to run,” Uiagalelei said. “That’s been the biggest thing for me this year, being able to be a threat with my feet when I can … pull it, get down the field and make a run.”
According to Swinney, those runs not only appeared during the first scrimmage, but became an integral feature of Clemson’s practice. Uiagalelei can help himself and there seems to be more players who can help him.
The offensive line was rarely the same top five every week last season. By the end of the season, the receiving corps started with two freshmen and a former recruit.
“I mean, we were a mess. Just to see the confidence and the guys playing and seeing the knowledge applied,” Swinney said, turning to the media to ask the obvious question.
When everyone on offense plays better, he asked, does that make the defense better? Yes of course.
“When it’s all bad, does that make the defender better or worse?” Sweeney said. “Worse. Exactly, it’s not rocket science … and it affects their confidence and all that stuff, and then, you know, defenders start trying to do too much because the quarterbacks get all the blame. Get all the credits too.
“It’s fun to see our defensemen start to feel a little bit more comfortable with them because we’re just better with them.”
There has been calm and confidence about Uyagalelei this pre-season. Even in the little things.
During practice, Uyagalelei appears to be making more rounds, encouraging his fellow forwards on the field and on the sideline. He has become a more vocal leader, something he struggled to assert as a freshman.
“He’s the hardest-working guy on our team in my eyes,” sophomore offensive guard Marcus Tate said. “He works harder than anyone, he’s very humble, probably the best teammate. He is always with all of us.
“That’s one thing I don’t think we saw last year. But this year, with confidence and all the hard work he’s put in, he’s going to put on a show this year.”
Crime as a whole wants to do that. Pace himself seemed a little weary of criticism of Clemson’s offense, noting the Tigers’ six-game winning streak to end the season and joking, “You can’t win with zero points.”
A team also cannot win without a capable defender. But Pace believes the Tigers have one in Waiagalelea.
“I feel that the DJ has grown into a great person. He made great plays. Pardon my language,” Pace said with a smile. “He made a good number of plays. I feel like he has learned from all his mistakes that have happened. He is a DJ
“A DJ will be a DJ”