Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has always planned for talented first-year quarterback DJ Uiagalelei to succeed Trevor Lawrence, but not this weekend against Boston College.
This is the situation for the Tigers, however, after Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19. He is absent against the Eagles (4-2, 3-2 from the Atlantic Coast Conference) and his future status against No.4 Notre-Dame on November 7 is unclear as Lawrence has to s’ be absent for at least 10 days.
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So ready or not, Uiagalelei (oo-ee-AHN-ga-leh-lay) got the chance to show off his skills as a Clemson starter.
Uiagalelei was a much-loved passer – ranked No.2 in the college’s overall standings by Rivals.com – and is expected to be Clemson’s next quarterback. Swinney is hoping Uiagalelei has the kind of success at Clemson that Deshaun Watson, now with the Houston Texans, and Lawrence enjoy as the main Heisman Trophy contender and possibly the top pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Uiagalelei, the 6-foot-4, 250-pound freshman from Inland Empire, Calif., Near Los Angeles, signed up in January and underwent nine spring practices before the coronavirus pandemic shuts down all university sports activities in March.
He has shown a big arm and power running game in five appearances, mostly after Lawrence and the Tigers (6-0, 5-0) had games in hand.
“I just want to be mentally prepared and do my job,” Uiagalelei said earlier this month. “Just to get some live balls and have some playing time. It’s just super cool.”
He will have plenty of playing time on Saturday, even earlier than he had imagined.
Uiagalelei has received scholarship offers from a host of Top 25 teams including Alabama, Georgia, Ohio State and Oklahoma. He chose the Tigers, he said, in part because of Lawrence and the chance to follow him for a season.
“Just to see what makes him great,” Uiagalelei said. “See on a daily basis his way of working, the various sacrifices he makes on the football field, outside the football field and how he organizes his time. There are a lot of things I take away from him to try to be as great a player as him.
As well as Lawrence’s talent, part of what makes him great is the talent around him – including another Heisman candidate in running back Travis Etiennne. And that should also help Uiagalelei.
Etienne, the reigning ACC two-time player of the year, has 522 yards and eight touchdowns this season.
Uiagalelei missed the Georgia Tech game with a bruised shoulder. He returned last week against Syracuse, completing one of his three assists in the final quarter.
After Uiagalelei, he’s last year’s replacement, red-shirted freshman Taisun Phommachanh of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Phommachanh played three games last year.
The only quarterback on Clemson’s roster to throw a touchdown pass other than Lawrence is Hunter Helms, a fourth player who threw two goal shots in the 73-7 blowout at Georgia Tech two weeks ago.
Lawrence has been exceptional this season. He won 1,833 yards and 17 touchdowns at the head of the ACC with just two interceptions. Lawrence is 31-1 as a college starter, his only loss to LSU in the National Championship game last January.
Swinney and Lawrence say he has mild symptoms of the virus and has isolated himself since first feeling unwell. Swinney said no other player is at risk of catching the virus from contact with Lawrence.
The 10-day isolation, if counted from Wednesday’s testing session, would end in time for Lawrence to play the Fighting Irish. Of course, it looked like Alabama coach Nick Saban would miss his team’s game with Georgia after testing positive. Still, three tests negative and three days later Saban was on the sidelines in a 41-24 win earlier this month.
Clemson released his weekly athletic testing report (being part of a three-times-a-week diet) on Friday, saying three student-athletes tested positive from Oct. 23-29. Department spokesman Jeff Kallin declined to say whether other football players were among the positive tests. He said Lawrence gave the department permission to release his condition and others did not.
All football players who test positive will be on the unavailable list along with any injured person, although no details are being disclosed of any player. The roster will be released about two hours before Saturday’s clash with Boston College, as Clemson does every game day.
Clemson said he administered 12,897 COVID-19 tests to athletes and athletic staff with 177 positives – 140 athletes and 37 staff. There was no hospitalization, the school said.
Lawrence said on Tuesday the Tigers had done well to stay safe amid the ongoing pandemic.
“We do a good job here keeping our social distance, six feet, in our boardrooms with masks on, all of those things where we are not close contact, we are not together so we could not convey the virus, ”Lawrence said.
The hardest part, Lawrence said Thursday, was missing a game with his teammates. He said he would watch and cheer on the Tigers “while I wait for the opportunity to join the team.