D.J. Uiagalelei: the Next Clemson Star QB in the Making

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This Saturday, the #4 Notre Dame Fighting Irish are hosting the #1 Clemson Tigers in what is undoubtedly the game of the year. The Tigers will be without their star quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, who contracted COVID-19.

Before becoming the consensus number one overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, Lawrence was a freshman phenomenon who unseated a 19-2 senior quarterback from the starting role. He went on to lead the Tigers to their second national championship, under Dabo Swinney.

While Trevor doesn’t have to worry about losing his job this year, Clemson has another star waiting in the wings, and he will take the field against Notre Dame on Saturday, in D.J. Uiagalelei.

He’s found his way to Clemson from St. John Bosco High School in Bellflower, California. But long before he arrived at St. John Bosco, his legend was growing. Coach Steven Lo, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at St. John Bosco, recalls when he learned about D.J.

“I was working at a school about 400 miles north, and I heard about this ‘absolute terror’ who had received his first scholarship offer in the 6th grade and was throwing pitches in the low to mid-90 mph range.”

“Before I became his coach, I saw the physical skills and talent. We’re talking about a kid who out threw [Ohio State quarterback] Justin Fields in a long ball competition. He threw the ball 85 yards.”

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Despite being a generational talent at the quarterback position, Uiagalelei didn’t play football much growing up. His dad, Dave, said, “We went to Bosco because we knew they had a coach there that got [2018 NFL 10th overall pick] Josh Rosen ready, and it was all about development. He didn’t play a whole lot of years in youth football so coming into high school, the main goal was to get D.J. developed.”

And develop he did. The focus wasn’t on playing time; it was about growing and preparing for the long term – becoming an NFL quarterback. 

When D.J. got to Bosco, he was second on the depth chart behind Re’Al Mitchell [now at Temple University ], a quarterback two years his senior who had won a state championship the year before.

After traveling to Washington D.C. for a game against St. John’s and finding themselves down two touchdowns, the Bosco coaching staff turned to  D.J., a freshman to give the offense a spark — in his first varsity appearance; he led the team to a comeback win.

He would remain the starter for the rest of the year.

The first day Coach Lo met D.J.; he knew he was going to be unique.

“When I toured the [St. John Bosco] campus, he was the first player I met. He’s got a maturity beyond his years – he doesn’t rest on his laurels or solely rely on his talent; he works like a no-star recruit. He’s a guy with a blue-collar work ethic”.

That work ethic entails training with the provided coaching staff and a private quarterback coach. Uiagalelei puts countless hours into drills, training, and rehabilitation, attending a specialized facility focused on maintaining his body.

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But to get to the NFL, he’d need to learn the ins-and-outs of the quarterback position. That’s where Coach Lo came in.

“At Bosco, he ran a college offense. We run multiple personnel, multiple dropback concepts, and RPO. Our system is a hybrid of NFL west coast concepts with the spread and RPO. We’ve studied Clemson and modeled parts of our packages off of them.”

“There are many similarities between what we run at Bosco and what he’s running at Clemson now. If there’s something he hasn’t seen at the college level, I’d be surprised.”

Coach Lo’s offense required D.J. to do everything that a quarterback will need to do on Saturdays and Sundays. He was expected to set protections, identify coverages, flip and change protections if required, understand run schemes and points of attack.

He excelled in the system. On his way to becoming the No. 1 overall player in the nation as a junior, Uiagalelei threw for 10,496 yards and had 127 career touchdowns and 11 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,103 yards and 18 touchdowns, a 6.1 yard-per-carry average.

“As far as the best player I’ve coached or best quarterback I’ve seen? It’s not even close.” Coach Lo said.

“If there’s a five-tool guy in football, it’s D.J.; he’s the whole package. He has the arm strength, he can throw with touch or with power, he can run, and he can beat you with his mind.”

So how did Clemson find this wunderkind?

Well, he found them.

“Clemson hadn’t offered him going into his junior year. They had limited interest, but with D.J. being on the west coast, they assumed he’d go to a west coast school”, Coach Lo said.

“But D.J. wanted to go to Clemson. He had a conversation with our head coach, Jason Negro, about where he wanted to play, and he said, Clemson.

So coach Negro reached out to a recruiter at Clemson and asked if they were interested. Within an hour, they called back and were recruiting him. It didn’t take long for Dabo and the staff to get involved.”

Along with football and his faith, to D.J., his family is “his world.”

His connection to his family is so important to him that when he announced his Top 5 schools, he included the junior college Mt. San Antonio (“Mt. Sac”) on his list.

The small community college located in Walnut, California, was on his list to pay homage to his uncles who coached and played at Mt. Sac.

It was his way of acknowledging the school’s significance for his family as he grew up spending nights watching his uncle coach the Mounties. You can also catch the self-described mama’s boy on gameday throwing up a heart sign to his mom, Tausha in the stands.

On Saturday, in South Bend, the young man taking the field is not your typical freshman quarterback. Coach Lo believes that the time Uiagalelei spent in the Southern California Trinity League has well prepared him for college football.

“Defenses brought everything under the sun against D.J. to try and stop him. One of our rivals is Mater Dei, and they easily had 7 or 8 defenders on the field that went on to play Division 1 football.

The amount of speed he’s seen on the field is not typical compared to most high school kids. While the game at the next level is faster, the learning curve will be less steep for D.J.”.

But it’s not just opponents that prepared Uiagalelei for college football, the St. John Bosco defense was loaded with talent during his time there. Over the past two years, they have sent roughly 20 defensive players on to Division 1 football schools.

“Both our starting cornerbacks at Bosco are starting in college now, one at USC and one at Washington,” Lo said. “We also have two safeties playing Division 1 – one at UCLA and another at Ohio State. These guys helped every day with his development. He had to see them in every practice.”

The story of D.J. Uiagalelei is nearly Paul Bunyan-esque. Not only did he break his offensive coordinator’s hand while throwing him footballs in practice, but he also has ice water in his veins and rarely gets nervous.

“He’s unflappable. Not much gets him up or down. He’s like, ‘What? Am I not supposed to throw a 60 yard dart for a touchdown? Isn’t that what you expect me to do?’

He’s so even-keeled, you almost want him to get riled up when he makes an impressive play. I guess he’s just got that mellow, relaxed west coach vibe about him”. Lo said of his former quarterback’s demeanor.

On Saturday, Notre Dame will have its hands full. Not only with rising star D.J. Uiagalelei, but with its shortcomings as a program against elite teams. Notre Dame is 1-19 vs. Top 5 opponents over the past 20 years.

clemson tigers

Beating Clemson can change the Irish’s national perception and instantly place them into conversations about contending for the national championship. But they’ll have to get past Clemson and D.J. Uiagalelei. 

College football has changed. Newcomers are much more advanced than before. The 19-year-old taking the field on Saturday has been preparing like an NFL athlete from a young age. We’re going to witness something special on Saturday; we’ll have to wait and see if it’s the ascension of D.J. Uiagalelei or a long-needed win over a Top 5 program for Notre Dame.

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