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2021 Clemson Football Season Preview: Quarterbacks

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Shakin the Southland’s annual posision-by-position season preview has arrived! We begin with the quarterbacks.

NCAA Football: ACC Kickoff Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson’s pre-camp depth chart at quarterback is officially listed as:

QB - DJ Uiagalelei
Taisun Phommachanh
Hunter Helms

Despite the official listing, the depth behind Uiagalelei is in flux. Phommachanh, will miss at least the start of the season after tearing his Achilles tendon in the Spring Game. He may be back early in the year, but how quickly he can contribute after being out of practice for so long is yet to be determined. Although Phommachanh did not play in the most recent scrimmage, Coach Swinney said he is currently participating in “certain aspects of practice.” He added “it is amazing how he has responded to treatment” and that he’ll be back “sooner rather than later.”

Heading into fall camp, QB Coach Brand Streeter said Hunter Helms will elevate to second-string, but the competition will remain open. Clemson, needing more depth than just Uiagalelei and Helms, was fortunate to hang on to incoming three-star freshman Will Taylor, who many thought would be a first round draft pick in the MLB’s first year player draft. He will come to Clemson and play QB as a freshman and then likely transition to slot receiver. The early buzz from fall camp on Taylor is that he is a serious threat in the run game. Finally, Billy Wiles rounds out the QB room.

Excluding Phommachanh, the QB room should look something like this in 2021:

QB - DJ Uiagalelei
Hunter Helms
Will Taylor
Billy Wiles

DJ Uiagalelei (Sophomore)

Unlike 2018 when there was a hotly contested battle between senior Kelly Bryant and freshman Trevor Lawrence for the starting QB spot, DJ Uiagalelei ascends to the starting role as a sophomore without much question or controversy. His five-star, #1 pro-style QB rating as a recruit coupled with his performance in two games as a starter last year yield confidence that he can be among the nations best QBs in 2021.

He has an extremely strong arm and is not tentative about launching it downfield. In each of his two starts last year, he connected on passes for 40+ yards. Against Boston College, he led the Tigers to an 18-point comeback win. He threw for 342 yards and 2 TDs with no INTs. In a double-OT loss to Notre Dame he threw for 439 yards with 2 TDs on no INTs — a passing yardage record for any opposing QB vs. Notre Dame.

At 6-foot-4 and 250lbs, he can be an effective runner in the Tajh Boyd mold, but was limited by an injured shoulder he played through last season. This season, that won’t be an issue, but coaches may choose to limit his usage due to the lack of proven back-up. Regardless, he has shown he doesn’t need to be an active runner to lead an elite passing attack for the Tigers.

Recently, BetOnline has listed JT Daniels with the most favorable 2021 Heisman odds at 5/1. Spencer Rattler (QB - OU) (7/1), Bryce Young (QB - UA) (10/1), and CJ Stroud (QB - OSU) (10/1) are all listed above Uiagalelei (11/1) come comes it at 5th. 247 Sports released the following graphic which ranks DJ Uiagalelei as the #9 QB in the nation:

If Clemson’s offensive line shows the kind of improvement many are expecting, Uiagalelei will be position to exceed even these high expectations and lead Clemson to another special season.

Hunter Helms (Rs. Freshman)

Helms, a three-star QB from West Columbia, passed on scholarship offers from South Florida, Troy, and Holy Cross to walk-on at Clemson. As a true freshman last year, Helms appeared in three games, most notably in Clemson’s 73-7 win at Georgia Tech. In that game, he went 5-7 for for 74 yards, 2 TDs, and 0 INTs. He finished the season 9-12 with 77 yards with 2 TDs and 0 INTs.

When Taisun Phommachanh was injured in the spring, many fans panicked about Clemson no longer having a viable second-string QB, but the gap between a healthy Phommachanh and Hunter Helms may be exaggerated. In their limited game action last year, Helms looked like the more polished passer and posted much better statistics than Phommachanh who was 5-17 with 17 yards, 0 TDs, and 1 INT.

Phommachanh was a four-star prospect and has a higher ceiling, but still has a lot more development before he proves to be on a different level than the other back-up QBs. He could be back as early as week two. A recovery that fast (just 7 months if he is able to practice the week leading up to the SC State game) is not common.

The reality for Clemson is they’re talented enough to win the Atlantic Division with any of the QBs on the roster on the field, but will need DJ Uiagalelei to win the ACC and advance in the playoff.

Will Taylor (Freshman)

Taylor is more acclaimed for his skills on the baseball diamond than the football field, but was still rated as a three-star football prospect. He will be a dual-sport athlete at Clemson. The Tigers were fortunate keep him as many thought he would be an early selection in the MLB First-Year Player Draft.

Taylor is only 5-foot-10 and will transition to slot receiver after this year, but with Phommachanh out, will begin his collegiate career at QB and will compete with Hunter Helms for the second-string QB role.

“We expect him to move to wideout, and I really do think that he’s got a chance to be elite as a receiver, really special. We’re going to take him this first year and we’re going to really teach him as a quarterback, and then the plan is to move him. But again, he’ll always have that foundation in play.” - Coach Swinney

In baseball, Taylor plays center field. He hit .450 with a .586 on-base percentage and 21 steals as a high school senior. Taylor will likely make a more immediate impact on the baseball field, but helps fill out Clemson’s QB room for 2021 and should contribute in the slot moving forward.

Billy Wiles (Freshman)

Clemson’s projected fourth-string QB is Billy Wiles, a true freshman walk-on from Ashburn, Virginia. Wiles is 6-foot-3, 200lbs and had offers from Tulane and Harvard, but chose to walk-on at Clemson.

Final Thoughts

With two starts already under his belt and top prospect pedigree, it doesn’t take a leap of faith to project DJ Uiagalelei as one of the top three or four best QBs in Power Five football. The Tigers should remain elite at the QB position for at least the next two seasons.

With highly-touted four-star QB Cade Klubnik coming in from Austin, Texas in 2022, none of Uiagalelei’s current back-ups are expected to become the eventual starter (although projecting several years down the line in the shifting college football landscape may be foolish). Nevertheless, they should provide the depth needed to take garbage time snaps and — with Clemson’s significant talent advantage — give the Tigers sufficient QB-play to win if an injury knocks Uiagalelei out for a game against one of the lesser teams on the schedule.

For more on this topic as well as Clemson’s D-line and season as a whole, check out this episode of the Clemson Pawcast in which I was a guest.