Clemson’s spring game is scheduled for Saturday with an orange-white scrimmage that aims to bring some balance with starters projected on both sides. This type of spring play setup is always great when it comes to positional battles, especially when it involves two quarterbacks who end up squaring off for the starting position.
Returning debuting DJ Uiagalalei completes his third spring practice at Clemson, first arriving as a five-star prospect and signing up early in the spring of 2020. Uiagalelei spent the 2020 season supporting Trevor Lawrence, and two prolific performances at the place of Lawrence had him positioned as heir apparent. The 2021 season hasn’t gone to plan for a player expected to be the next face of this Clemson dynasty, however, and the Tigers offense as a whole has struggled. So this spring was spent starting over.
Starting over, or at least building something new, was the theme of spring practice at Clemson. Dabo Swinney told this year’s team during off-season practices that the torch had passed, as the program said goodbye to longtime offensive coordinator Tony Elliott and defensive coordinator Brent Venables. The payoff, from a staffing perspective, has been a significant shakeup, but mostly with promotions and new roles for coaches who have experience with the program.
The other novelty of this spring is the position of Uiagalelei in the quarterfinals race. When he arrived as the first registrant, there was no doubt his work would support the entrenched starter, but five-star rookie Cade Klubnik has the opportunity to earn the go-ahead to start in 2022.
Klubnik was, like Uiagalelei, a top-10 prospect and the No. 1 quarterback in his recruiting class. He doesn’t have the experience Uiagalelei has under his belt, but much of that experience came as the Tigers’ passing offense dwindled and the program missed the ACC Championship Game. and the college football playoffs for the first time in seven years.
Clemson fills the orange and white rosters with a draft between the two assistants: Mike Reed (assistant head coach, special teams and cornerback) and Kyle Richardson (passing game coordinator). The squad is split into ‘Offense A’ and ‘Offense B’ as well as ‘Defense A’ and ‘Defense B’, and the two coaches drafted their squads on Wednesday morning to decide on the rosters.
Uiagalelei is the starting quarterback for the orange team and Klubnik is the starter for the white team. A quick scan of the rosters suggests Orange have a few other names fans will recognize on offense — Joseph Ngata, for example — while White has some of the best defensive stars available to play, like First Team All-ACC defensive tackle Tyler Davis. and ACC Defensive Rookie of the Year Andrew Makuba.
Now that the roster is set and the scrum is approaching, let’s dive into some key scenarios from Saturday’s Orange-White game.
Tigers are hobbled
One of the reasons both quarterbacks are going to demand so much attention is that it will be difficult to glean much from the rest of the roster with so many projected starters either absent or restricted throughout spring training. An estimated 20 scholarship players are unavailable for the spring game, and Swinney said it was one of the thinnest springs he has ever been in as a coach. We will overreact to the performance of Uiagalelei and Klubnik, but the fact is that many of the best attacking options that should be available this fall will not be suitable for the scrum and some of the defensive stars of the team – who, in theory would present more of a challenge for these quarterbacks – also going to be on the sidelines.
But just because these players are out doesn’t mean they won’t be involved. The team’s top two running backs (Will Shipley and Kobe Pace), top tight end (Davis Allen) and two potential starters at wide receiver (Beaux Collins and EJ Williams) will all “work” as college students. coaches for the game.
Rebuilding confidence in the passing attack
Swinney said last week that Uiagalelei had “had a great spring”, citing how he handles the attack and has “great ownership of what he does”. A big part of Uiagalelei’s offseason has been health and fitness. He told reporters at the start of spring training that he gained 260 pounds during the season, but lost 20 pounds in the offseason with the goal of getting down to 230-235 pounds. The hope is that losing weight will help him improve his mobility and balance when throwing while running – an issue that has contributed to mistakes during his 2021 campaign.
Uiagalelei told reporters his confidence was “at an all-time high” at the start of spring training, but how will that confidence play out on Saturday in front of a stadium full of fans who expect to see an improvement? Confidence was also a comment from the coaching staff, trying to build a new passing offense for the offense that aims to build confidence not just in the quarterback but in the offense as a whole. New offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter and passing game coordinator Kyle Richardson worked to simplify certain aspects of the passing game; not just the concepts, but an approach that makes it easier to launch players into space.
Klubnik impressed, but development continues
A highly touted freshman will always be a star of the spring game, at least in the eyes of the fans who catch their eye looking for a glimpse into the future of the program. But Uiagalelei’s struggles in 2021 have brought a certain urgency to Klubnik’s development prospects, particularly heading into a year focused on a return to the top of the sport. Will Klubnik, the player who went 27-0 as a starter for 6A powerhouse Austin Westlake and became the first Texas high school quarterback to go undefeated while winning back-to-back 6A state tiles since Kyler Murray, ready? Swinney was impressed with what he saw from Klubnik on the pitch, but mentioned the physical development he still hopes to see before the fall.
“Cade continues to impress. He’s just a really talented young player. Same things as these corners – as advertised and just a sponge. Love it all, Swinney recently said, via 247Sports. “He’s about 188 (pounds), 190 right now and heading in the right direction out there. So proud of him and proud of those receivers too. It’s been a good spring. We still don’t have all the world, but what we’ve been able to do…it’s just different guys.”
Uiagalelei and Klubnik are different players, but they have one thing in common in this competition: the job is not done. There is development on and off the pitch that is very ongoing, and although the spring game will not decide the battle, it will provide the coaching staff with important insights into how everyone performs under the weight of the expectations.
Clemson’s Orange-White spring game kicks off Saturday at 1 p.m. ET and can be seen on the ACC Network.