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DJ Uiagalelei is Biased but He’s Right About Clemson’s Offense

One could call it timid and they’d be mostly right.

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Oregon State Spring Football Game Photo by Ali Gradischer/Getty Images

It’s not uncommon for a player who transferred to give interviews bad mouthing the program they left, and there’s usually not much worth covering. It just leads to fans of the team being talked about bad mouthing the player who transferred out. Nothing productive particularly happens. You, in the comments, I’m talking to you. Don’t. By any measure, DJ’s time as a Clemson starting quarterback was a failure. Both parties have moved on, wish each other the best, etc.

What makes this interview worth talking about here is that in significant part I think DJ Uiagalelei was right when he criticized the Clemson offense, and he is not the only one who has made these criticisms. In an article with The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman (paywalled, but many of the quotes appear elsewhere), DJ described the Clemson offense as “basic,” said it failed to play to his strengths, and called the play calling timid. To be fair to Clemson’s coaching staff, I do think there’s a chicken/egg debate regarding why the coaching staff showed a lack of trust in DJ given his performance. But otherwise, DJ isn’t out of bounds here.

I, and other commentators, have said Clemson’s offensive system was in a bad way for a few years now. It used to be a common refrain that the coaches were keeping the good plays in reserve for their most important games. Perhaps that was true with a different staff. By 2022 it looked like the offense just didn’t have it.

At The Athletic, Bruce Feldman wrote an article with Grace Raynor describing how Clemson’s offense had become predictable and stagnant by 2021. Over at Greenville Online, Scott Keepfer described the 2022 offense as, “stagnant, non-imaginative and devoid of a downfield passing threat.” At Sports Illustrated, Richard Johnson noted that Clemson’s inability to produce NFL caliber offensive linemen, unique among title contenders, left the Tigers extremely reliant on quarterback and receiver play. Johnson also described Clemson as lacking an identity on offense, and was correct in pointing out how lucky Clemson was to hit on Trevor Lawrence and the Nasty Man basically back to back.

In the 2021 The Athletic article linked above, Dan Orlovsky did not mince words. Orlovsky, who knows a thing or two about bad offenses was quoted saying, “For you to sit there and not address, ‘Hey, schematically, can we do the same stuff that we did in 2017? Can we?’ Right now, that answer is no.” Orlovsky also expressed a belief the scheme held Trevor Lawrence back, which true or not, presented a problem in future QB recruiting. In essence, Orlovsky echoes Johnson when he says, “They’re very much go out and execute dependent, and when you’ve got generational quarterbacks with some superstar receivers and one of the best running backs in the history of the ACC, that works because they cover up a lot of stuff.”

The belief was increasingly becoming that talent covered for a deficiency in scheme. That became a problem. With the ‘WRU’ days in the past and D.J. Uiagalelei being unable to meet the expectations set by Trevor Lawrence and the QBs prior, things fell off the rails. The Tigers’ offense has struggled to produce big plays for years now.

It’s very possible that Uiagalelei and Dabo Swinney agree about a lot of this. To be frank, I agree with some of what DJU is saying here. Part of why I was able to begin writing for this website is that the offense Clemson ran was substantially the same as the offense my high school ran in 2015. The idea that Clemson’s offense had become stale is the best explanation for why the Tigers fired Brandon Streeter and brought in outside help by hiring Garrett Riley.

This is the potential downside to staff continuity. While continuity is valuable for building culture, establishing consistency and avoiding the reality that each coach you hire is potentially a dud, there’s a real risk with no new ideas coming in. Football strategy is dynamic, the only consistent thing throughout its history is the cycle of offenses beating defenses geared to stop the last popular offense, defenses adjusting to this new offense, and the process repeating. You have to change or die.

The easy contrast here is Alabama under Saban, whose greatest skillset is probably his ability to adapt. But you do not have to have his level of staff turnover, or the school for wayward boys coaches that system depends on. Coaching turnover is not the only way to get new ideas into an offense, but when there are no new faces in the room it becomes harder for people to bring truly heterodox ideas to a program.

It’s not like Clemson has solely promoted from within in Dabo’s time here. The decisions to bring in Chad Morris, and later Brent Venables, as outside hires were crucial to the football team winning national titles. Dabo had a reputation as having a good eye for assistant coaching talent, and in his defense, promoting from within seemed to work with Jeff Scott and Tony Elliot once Morris left.

There is no reason to assume that hiring Garrett Riley from TCU will work, but the process is commendable. Riley’s blend of power running concepts and the air raid is new, novel, and has a better chance of working than a continued commitment to doing the same thing and expecting different results. Now there’s not much left to do but wait and see what the new offense does on the field. For the first time in a while, I’m excited to see what that looks like, and that’s all I ever wanted from this hire.