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Dabo Swinney reacts to former Clemson QB DJ Uiagalelei’s criticisms of the program

Former Clemson football quarterback DJ Uiagalelei had a lot to say about his former program last month in an interview with The Athletic — not all of it positive.

But Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said that hasn’t changed how he feels about Uiagalelei, who spent two seasons as Clemson’s starting quarterback before losing his spot to Cade Klubnik late in the 2022 season and ultimately transferred to Oregon State.

In an interview with The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, published in late April, Uiagalelei aired a number of frustrations stemming from his time at Clemson, including the program’s “basic” offensive scheme, an inherent lack of trust from Swinney and other staffers involved in offensive play-calling and how the team handled its quarterback situation late in the season.

Swinney told reporters Monday he was aware of that criticism from Uiagalelei, which made the rounds on social media, but he continues to hold his former quarterback in high regard.

“I love DJ,” Swinney said at the Rock Hill stop of Clemson’s annual Prowl & Growl summer speaking tour. “Ain’t nothing changed with that. I’m just pulling for him to do awesome and I think he will. I’m proud of him. He’s a graduate of Clemson. At the end of the day, it didn’t go as well as you’d hoped. Sometimes that’s just life, you know?”

Uiagalelei quarterbacked Clemson to a 10-2 regular season record, ACC Atlantic Division title and conference championship game appearance in 2022 but ceded his starting position to Klubnik — his highly touted backup — in that ACC title game win against North Carolina.

The former No. 1 pro style quarterback in his class entered the transfer portal days later and committed to Oregon State on Dec. 24. Uiagalelei is now competing for the Beavers’ starting role with two other quarterbacks, incumbent Ben Gulbranson and freshman Aidan Chiles.

Coming out of high school in greater Los Angeles, Uiagalelei was widely regarded as a can’t-miss prospect and had enormous success as a true freshman playing in relief of star quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who missed two games in 2020 due to the COVID pandemic.

But he could never fully recapture that magic. In 2021, he threw nine touchdowns against 10 interceptions in 13 games as Clemson struggled mightily on offense, went 10-3 and missed the College Football Playoff for the first time under Swinney after six straight appearances.

Clemson Tigers quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) and Clemson Tigers quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (5) celebrate during the second half of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022, in Atlanta. (Vasha Hunt via Abell Images for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game)
Clemson Tigers quarterback Cade Klubnik (2) and Clemson Tigers quarterback DJ Uiagalelei (5) celebrate during the second half of the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, Monday, Sept. 5, 2022, in Atlanta. (Vasha Hunt via Abell Images for the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game)

A ‘small margin of error’ at QB

The Tigers stuck with Uiagalelei as their starter for 2022 despite bringing in Klubnik, a decorated five-star recruit from Texas. As a junior, Uiagalelei was red hot early for Clemson and actually had the seventh-best odds among all players to win the Heisman Trophy entering Week 9.

But the turnover issues that plagued Uiagalelei in 2021 popped back up late in the season. He set career highs in most major statistics last fall, including 29 total touchdowns, but turned the ball over 10 times, with seven of those turnovers coming across his last six games.

Uiagalelei got benched for Klubnik in a home win against Syracuse, a road loss at Notre Dame and the ACC championship game against UNC — Klubnik came in on the third series, dazzled and won the game’s MVP award — before transferring to Oregon State in December.

Swinney on Monday emphasized Uiagalelei’s success as a Clemson quarterback: He left the school 22-6 as the Tigers’ starter if you include the ACC title game (he started and played the first two series), and four of his six losses came in one-score games.

That included double overtime losses to Notre Dame in 2020 and NC State in 2021, a 31-30 home loss to South Carolina to end the 2022 regular season and a 10-3 loss to Georgia, that season’s eventual national champion, to kick off the 2021 season.

“At the end of the day, he’s 22-6 as a starter, had two double overtime losses on the road, a one-point loss at home and a pick six loss, one-score game against the national champion,” Swinney said.

Uiagalelei told The Athletic in April that despite his frustrations he didn’t regret his time at Clemson, which included two ACC championships in 2020 and 2022.

“It was a blessing even though there was some stuff I wish would’ve went differently,” he told the website. “I wish I would’ve learned some different stuff; feel like I didn’t get developed as much as I wanted to.”

Entering the 2023 season with Klubnik situated as his quarterback of the future, Swinney said he wishes Uiagalelei well at Oregon State and commiserates with how tough it is to play the quarterback position.

“It’s a very small margin of error,” Swinney said. “But he was 22-6 as a starter and part of two ACC championship teams and met, hopefully, his future wife here in Ava — sweet gal. But no, I love DJ and, again, I’m pulling for him to do great things. I’ll be very surprised if he doesn’t.”