Highly touted quarterback Cade Klubnik, the nation’s No. 28 rookie in 2022, took his first official snaps for Clemson on Wednesday as the Tigers opened spring training with a potential quarterback battle looming. But head coach Dabo Swinney says outgoing DJ Uiagalelei is starting the spring much better – mentally and physically – than the way he ended a tumultuous campaign in 2021.
“He would be the first to tell you he has a lot of things to improve, but he never made excuses, never pointed fingers,” Swinney said of Uiagalelei, who was to be a likely Heisman Trophy contender before the season, but finished with just nine touchdown passes. “What he went through last year accelerated all the other things he needed to learn – mental toughness, courage, thick skin, the will to win. great year.”
Uiagalelei checked in at 240lbs – losing more than 15lbs since Clemson’s 2021 season ended in December. Swinney said the staff spoke with Uiagalelei – nicknamed “Big Cinco” in a nod to his weight and uniform number – about the need to lose weight and improve his fitness.
“He’ll never be small – he’s just a big man,” Swinney said. “But he knew he could do a better job. He’s a very good athlete, and the fact that he works the way he worked is going to pay dividends.”
Still, the presence of Klubnik, the Texas Player of the Year last season, should provide some serious intrigue throughout the spring.
Clemson opened 2014 spring training without a starting QB, but all eyes were on true freshman Deshaun Watson, who eventually won the job over senior Cole Stoudt in Game 4 of the season. In 2018, it was five-star rookie Trevor Lawrence who upset the Tigers’ depth chart at the Spring Ball, ultimately beating Kelly Bryant for the starting job.
Whether Klubnik could do the same remains a question, but Swinney drew comparisons to the situations with Watson and Lawrence when discussing how his new freshman phenom will be rated.
“He’s expected to come here and be the guy we brought in,” Swinney said. “We’ve signed a leader, a guy who is a detailed preparer and takes to the pitch with great preparation, learns from his mistakes and improves as he goes. … Show up and we’ll see where he is. The good news is he’s going to get a lot of reps.”
Both quarterbacks got reps on Wednesday, with Uiagalelei still wearing a knee brace from an injury he suffered mid-season.
The injury factor, Swinney said, could be key to either QB’s success.
In 2021, Clemson entered their bowl game with more than 30 players, including massive attrition at receiver.
“I never had a young QB who didn’t make mistakes,” Swinney said of Uiagalelei’s pitfalls in 2021. “The difference was the DJs were amped up. We weren’t as good around him than with [Watson and Lawrence.]”
Still, Clemson will be without a host of projected starters for the spring.
Wide receivers EJ Williams and Will Taylor are unlikely to practice. Starting tailback Will Shipley and his best replacement, Kobe Pace, are also both out, along with tight end Davis Allen. Clemson also has a huge void at center, where Hunter Rayburn, who started six games in 2021, announced his retirement with a neck injury, and Mason Trotter, who started seven games, is unlikely to see a action this year due to personal issues, Swinney said.
As a result, Swinney said Clemson is actively looking to add a transfer on the O line, something the Tigers have rarely done in the past. While Clemson nabbed QB Hunter Johnson — a former Tiger who transferred to Northwestern three years ago — Swinney’s goal on the O line is to add an instant impact player, he said.
“It has to be the right person, who suits us, fits our program and our dressing room,” Swinney said. “And not just a guy, but someone who’s kind of a rookie for all conferences and several years who’s a veteran.”
In the meantime, Swinney said, Will Putnam will work at center after playing guard last year.
In addition to the offensive starters for the spring, Swinney said defensive tackles Bryan Bresee and Tre Williams, safeties Landen Zanders and Tyler Venables, cornerback Malcolm Greene and linebacker Sergio Allen are also expected to miss some or all of training.