The Tigers have their paws all over the all-ACC preseason defensive team, and uncertainty at key offensive positions might place more pressure on Clemson’s D.
The No. 4 Tigers have two national titles and two runner-up finishes since 2015 and are the preseason choice to win the ACC after watching Pittsburgh hoist the trophy last season.
Clemson opens the season Monday as a 22-point favorite against Georgia Tech in Atlanta as part of the annual college football Labor Day showcase, and the spotlight rests squarely on junior quarterback DJ Uiagalelei.
Uiagalelei, who played nine games as a freshman in 2020, including two starts when Trevor Lawrence missed time with the COVID-19 protocol, raised hopes when he completed 66.7 percent of his passes for 914 yards and five touchdowns, with no interceptions.
Then came 2021.
Uiagalelei started all 13 games as the Tigers went 6-2 in the ACC and 10-3 overall, capped by a win over Iowa State in the Cheez-It Bowl.
But his good times from the year before didn’t carry over. Uiagalelei’s completion rate tumbled to 55.6 percent, and while he threw for 2,246 yards, he averaged under 11 yards per completion. He finished with more interceptions (10) than touchdowns (nine).
“There’s definitely a lot of mistakes where I wish I could’ve done better and fundamental wise just different plays in the game, decision making, going back on it,” Uiagalelei said, describing what he saw watching film on a self-scouting mission.
Uiagalelei spent the offseason getting closer to peak fitness level. He said he lost 30 pounds with a focus on improving his overall game.
Coach Dabo Swinney told the media that Uiagalelei is the man — of the moment, at least. Five-star freshman Cade Klubnick remains in the picture.
“DJ is the starter and he’s earned that. If that changes, I guess everybody will know it. But our plan is for DJ to have an amazing season and for Cade to get as much (playing time) as possible, because he brings some special gifts to the table. That will all be game by game.”
The Tigers bring seven starters back from the defensive unit that posted some gaudy numbers last season, such as second in the nation in scoring defense (14.8 points per game) and eighth in yards allowed (306.3).
Leading the way are tackle Bryan Bresee and end Myles Murphy.
Along with linebacker Trenton Simpson, Bresee and Murphy are on the watch list for the Lombardi and Bednarik awards and the Nagurski Trophy. Depending on the evaluator, the Tigers have from three to five defensive players receiving preseason all-conference honors.
They have Georgia Tech’s attention.
“They’re arguably the best front four in college football, and I don’t know how much of an argument there is,” Yellow Jackets coach Geoff Collins. “They’ve got a scheme suited for the defensive line to make an impact. … Obviously we know we’ve got our work cut out for us.”
The Yellow Jackets are coming off a 3-9 season, including 2-6 in the ACC. Their success on offense leans heavily on the development of sophomore quarterback Jeff Sims.
Sims played in 10 games in the COVID-impacted 2020 season and retained his freshman eligibility in 2021. He threw for a combined 3,349 yards with a completion rate of 57.1 percent and 25 touchdowns vs. 20 interceptions. He also has 864 yards rushing and 10 scores on 190 carries.
The 20-year-old is getting adding tutoring this year from former Heisman Trophy winner and coach Chris Weinke, now the Yellow Jackets’ quarterbacks coach.
“Obviously we all know how talented Jeff is. He’s had to play a lot of ball at a young age for us,” Collins said. “… And then you bring in Chris Weinke, who has the resume as a player and a coach, and it’s pouring into him all day every day.”
–Field Level Media
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