Clemson came into 2022 with a lot of chatter about their QB situation. DJ Uiagalelei was a former-five star that flashed in a two game sample in 2020, but struggled mightily in 2021. Cade Klubnik was an incoming five-star QB from the football-obsessed state of Texasshman. Many fans hoped for a repeat of the 2018 season when Coach Swinney made the tough decision to bench QB Kelly Bryant and unlock another level of offensive production with freshman Trevor Lawrence. Sports pundits were more than happy to gather clicks by hyping this potential outcome. Others felt DJ Uiagalelei would improve just enough to hold the job all season, but not enough to return Clemson to elite status. This group was mostly correct.
Below is a graph showing the total passing yards by each of the past nine Clemson teams:
As you can see, the Tigers’ two least productive seasons were the past two. DJ Uiagalelei has been the starting QB for both of those seasons making him an easy scapegoat, but those seasons were also two with abysmal wide receiver play and oft-criticized play calling. This makes assigning blame far more difficult.
After performing adequately in Clemson’s first three games against overmatched opponents, DJ Uiagalelei got red hot in the next two games. In a shootout against Wake Forest where Clemson absolutely needed a gem of a performance, DJ delivered with 371 passing yards and a whopping 5 touchdown passes. He came back out the next week with an efficient performance against NC State—one of the best defenses in the ACC. He was 21/30 (70%) for 209 yards and a touchdown. NC State was undefeated and ranked No. 10 in the country. With Devin Leary still healthy at QB for the Wolfpack, they were a quality opponent, even if they faltered following his mid-season injury.
The following week, the Tigers headed to Tallahassee. After a back-and-forth start to the game, they overwhelmed the Seminoles in the four minutes before and after halftime to secure a 20-point lead. It was then that both DJ Uiagalelei and the 2022 Clemson Tigers peaked. They escaped Tallahassee with a six-point win, but not before recovering an onside kick in the final minutes.
Whatever was working to that point faltered. DJ Uiagalelei only reached 200 passing yards once in the next six games and Clemson stumbled to a 3-3 finish. He often didn’t see open receivers. When he did, they were out of sync, leaving him throwing to an empty patch of grass where he expected the wide receiver to be.
The Tigers benched him against Syracuse and managed to salvage the win, but against Notre Dame they waited far too long and didn’t put Klubnik in until the game was nearly out of reach. In desperation mode, he forced a throw that turned into an interception. Coaches lost confidence in him and when desperation time came against South Carolina, they refused to make the change, leading to a second loss.
Finally, after DJ Uiagalelei looked lost in the first two drives against North Carolina, the staff gave Klubnik another chance. This time, he lit the world on fire and didn’t look back. Klubnik threw for 279 yards on 20-24 passing with a passing touchdown. He also ran for 30 yards and rushing touchdown.
It seemed the QB problem was solved and the offense was fixed. Unfortunately, the Orange Bowl shattered that optimism. Klubnik started and the offense stalled each time they reached the red zone. The offensive line struggled and Klubnik looked uncomfortable managing the tenuous pocket. Clemson lost the game to finish 11-3. In each of the losses, the passing game was the primary culprit.
Overall, it was an extremely volatile year for Clemson QB play. They enjoyed three games of elite QB play (Wake Forest, NC State, and UNC) and three games of paltry performance (Syracuse, Notre Dame, and South Carolina). While his final season stats disguise the inconsistency, DJ Uiagalelei finished with a middle-of-the-road stat line of: 2,521 passing yards, 22 TDs, and 7 INT.
The ACC Championship and Orange Bowl were our first looks at Clemson’s offense with a new QB, and they gave us wildly conflicting information. We came away from the ACC Championship thinking all of the offensive woes were solved. After the Orange Bowl, we couldn’t help but think the wide receivers, offensive line, and play calling were the bigger issues all long. The truth probably lies somewhere in-between.
Cade Klubnik will help Clemson become more explosive which should be the first priority for the offense. The offensive line could improvement incrementally with four starters returning. If Coach Riley is more creative and more dedicated to getting the ball in his best playmakers hands (i.e., running the ball with Shipley and Mafah) the offense should improve.
Still, Klubnik showed his inexperience, the offensive line remains leaky, and the wide receiver group lost their top graded (PFF) option in Joe Ngata. If that unit struggles again, as they very well may, the passing attack will be limited. Without a new offensive coordinator we would have said to expect modest improvement but not back to the 4,000+ yard levels we enjoyed in years past. With Garrett Riley now leading the offense, the upside could be higher. Still, it may take another year of improving the wide receiver play to get fully back to the elite offenses that won championships at Clemson.