Clemson’s offense was unusually bad last season. They ranked last in the ACC in passing efficiency as well as 100th in the FBS in total offense, according to Yahoo Sports. Their biggest weakness was the downfield passing attack, as quarterback DJ Uiagalelei completed just 56% of his passes. The sophomore threw just nine touchdowns and 10 picks en route to a 10-3 finish.
It was a far cry from the Trevor Lawrence or Deshaun Watson days when the Tigers were near the top of the FBS in most offensive categories, from efficiency to yardage. That being said, Dabo Swinney won’t let the offense falter twice in a row.
The team failed Uiagalelei
Last season, Clemson had their worst offensive output in the last 12 years, averaging just 324 yards and 20 points per game. For reference, the 2020 squad averaged 502 yards and 43.5 PPG.
Uiagalelei was ranked the No. 1 pro-style quarterback in 247Sports’ Composite rankings for 2020. So, his underwhelming season came as a shock to Clemson fans as well as college football fans everywhere. He looked extremely uncomfortable in the pocket through the first seven weeks of the season, during which they suffered all three of their losses. He threw for over 200 yards just once in that span.
One opposing coach thinks that their dramatic drop off could have been due to their loss of elite surrounding talent such as Travis Etienne, Amari Rogers and Justyn Ross, according to ESPN.
“The amount of times on third-and-18 last year that they would throw a checkdown to Etienne and he’d make eight people miss and gain 26 yards, that happened all the time,” the coach said.
Etienne, Rogers and Ross were all vital for the Tigers’ success in 2020 and have yet to be adequately replaced. Along with those skill positions, the Tigers’ offensive line play was lacking last season.
“Their offensive line play is hurting more than their running back play,” one ACC coach said. “Etienne was a great player, but there’s a lot of runs where he wasn’t touched until he’s in the second level, and you’re not seeing that right now.”
They addressed this in the recruiting class of 2023 by accumulating three four-star offensive line commits in the past few months. Now that Clemson has seen what they can produce without the offensive superstars of years’ past, expect Swinney to adjust the playbook a bit so Uiagelelei can play to his strengths.
Here’s how Swinney can help DJ take the Clemson offense back to Championship form in 2022:
Get Uiagalelei comfortable with his receivers
Greg Biggins, a 24/7 Sports national recruiting analyst, said Uiagalelei has, “generational strength,” but is, “much more than a big arm.”
He also possesses phenomenal touch to all three levels of the field, according to Biggins, who said that he is viewed as a natural leader and should be an early pick in the NFL Draft.
Clemson will feature a pair of 6’3” receivers this season, including deep threat junior Joseph Ngata and the physical sophomore Beaux Collins. Ngata’s combination of speed and length makes him tough to cover down the field, and Collins is the guy you want in a jump-ball situation. Think Martavis Bryant and Tee Higgins for historical Tiger comparisons.
Their lack of elite receiver play last season was one of the biggest pitfalls for the Tigers, so that is an area that Swinney will surely have attended to in the off-season. These are two pass-catchers who could prove to bring out the best in Uiagalelei next season.
Ngata will allow him to stretch his rifle of an arm, while Collins will be able to make tough catches, working primarily in the first two levels of the field. If these two could emerge as dependable pass-catchers against SEC and Big 10 opponents, then Uiagalelei would likely feel more confident in the pocket.
They also have a 6’5” sophomore receiver by the name of Dacari Collins, who could serve as a matchup nightmare near the goal line. He was featured on NCAAF Nation’s Breakout Watch because his large frame could help him fill Clemson’s need for a standout receiver.
Although a 10-3 season wouldn’t be considered a failure by most programs, Clemson fans have come to expect greatness from Dabo Swinney’s offense. They still expect it in 2022. The talent is there, it’s just a matter of execution.
One way DJ can improve the rapport with his receivers is by improving his footwork through his progression, according to offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter.
The two have worked all offseason on improving his footwork while playing in the Clemson system. That has helped Streeter identify his strengths and weaknesses when it comes to play type.
“We’ve had great communication about what he likes and what he feels comfortable with,” Streeter said. “I’ve been able to listen to him, hear him out on a few things he would like to do footwork-wise that he can be more comfortable with as long as it fits the offense and the timing of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
With improved footwork and some weight lost, DJ Uiagalelei has a chance to return to the top of NFL Draft boards in his junior season. To do so, he will need to muster a performance typical of a 21st Century Clemson quarterback.