Clemson coach Dabo Swinney squashed any notion of a quarterback controversy immediately following the Tigers 27-21 comeback win against Syracuse on Saturday. Swinney, who benched DJ Uiagalelei in favor of freshman Cade Klubnik after the starter committed three turnovers, called the junior "our guy" at quarterback.
"Sometimes, you know, Steph Curry goes 2 for 25. Your best player sometimes can have a bad day," Swinney told ESPN after the game. "He just got out of rhythm, made some bad plays. We just needed a change. We showed them we got that guy that can com in. DJ's our quarterback. There ain't no question about that. That's our guy. That's our leader. You can write that right now: DJ's our guy. He's got to play better, and he will, but how about Cade coming in and leading these guys?"
Uiagalelei threw two interceptions and lost a fumble that was returned 90 yards for a Syracuse touchdown before he was replaced by Klubnik late in the third quarter. Klubnik did not receive a heavy work load moving the ball through the air, completing just two of his four pass attempts for 19 yards while mostly contributing in a rushing attack that racked up 293 yards behind stellar efforts from running backs Will Shipley (27 carries, 172 yards, 2 TDs) and Phil Mafah (18 carries, 94 yards, TD).
Klubnik did have one outstanding and particularly impactful play on a 2-point try after Shipley's 50-yard go-ahead touchdown run, scrambling away from Syracuse pressure to find Joseph Ngata in the back of the end zone for the conversion. That gave Clemson a 24-21 lead with 11:26 remaining, the Tigers' first of the game since going up 7-0 midway through the first quarter.
Swinney's verbal commitment to DJU is significant because of Clemson's own history with five-star freshmen overtaking incumbent starters for the QB1 responsibilities. Both Deshaun Watson (in 2014) and Trevor Lawrence (in 2018) started their freshman seasons as the backup. Considering Klubnik's pedigree as a three-time state title-winning quarterback from the Texas football powerhouse Westlake High School in Austin, there has long been a suspicion that a similar story would play out in 2022.
Uiagalelei put any of that talk to bed early in the season as he raced off to a hot start that saw a complete change in his results from 2021 to 2022. After throwing nine touchdowns to 10 interceptions last season, Uiagalelei had 17 touchdowns to just two interceptions through the first seven games of the season. He was excellent when Clemson needed him the most in a 51-45 shootout win at Wake Forest and threw for three scores in each of the last two road wins at Boston College and Florida State.
Throwing two interceptions, losing a costly fumble inside the 10-yard line and generally failing to be an effect threat in the passing game brought some of the same 2021 frustrations back to light on Saturday. Last year, however, the Tigers didn't have Klubnik to come in and replace DJU, so the team was left to rely on defense and its running game.
Promoting Klubnik for a half is significant on the surface, but ultimately Dabo might stick to his word. No matter what the projections are for the former five-star prospect, the game plan was clearly to let the ground game and defense lead the way. Uiagalelei could have potentially led the exact same comeback, but now the coaches at least have confidence that Klubnik is battle tested and ready for the moment if his number is called again.