By: Neil Burnett
Yesterday, the talk of the radio was DJ Uiagalelei. It’s time for us to put 2021 behind us, but before we do, let me give my view on what happened.
Right out the door, National Champion Georgia brought the best defense in the country to the Tigers and held the Tigers to 3 points, and scored the game’s ONLY touchdown on a pass interception. All this is well known, and talked about. That game set the tone for the Tigers season with regards to quarterback play. However, there are several points to consider.
Point one. Injuries. Injuries to wide receivers played a big part in quarterback play. It’s well known that WRs Frank Ladson, EJ Williams, Justyn Ross, Robbie Spector, Troy Stellato, Will Taylor and Joseph Ngata all missed time due to injuries. It is also well known that the TE position was basically absent from the passing game. When healthy, Davis Allen contributed 28 receptions for 208 yards and three touchdowns. The rest of the TE group had 9 receptions. Let that sink in. 37 total receptions from the TE position. This needs to change. With a healthy Allen, and an improved Jake Briningstool, new OC Brandon Streeter has to bring the TE’s back into the offense.
Point One – A. DJ was not exactly 100% healthy for the season himself. He was beat up pretty bad against Georgia, sacked 7 times, which was probably the highest total for his entire career. He got hurt in the November 6th game against Louisville and played the rest of the season with a knee brace. The next week, “a tendon thing” caused him to have his fore finger on his throwing hand to be taped up for the last four games of the season, all Tiger victories. At the ACC Media Days, Coach Dabo Swinney said DJ has lost about 30 pounds, is not wearing a knee brace, and the finger is fine. A healthy DJ Uiagalelei will hopefully pay dividends.
Point two. Offensive line. The OL struggled through the first half of the season, partially due to inexperience, partially due to injuries, in which both led to inconsistency in both the run game and the pass game. When the offensive line is struggling, two thoughts come to mind; rollout and moving pocket. Either could have helped with the passing game, moving the quarterback away from pressure. Neither was used throughout the season. This year, the Tigers return three solid starters, two at OT and Will Putnam moving over from OG to the Center position. Marcus Tate logged 627 snaps at guard last year and looks to be the starter there this year. The other guard position is up for grabs, and there are several vying for the start. Fall practice will bring about a lot of competition. Bottom line, inconsistency in the interior positions affects quarterback play and should be better this year.
Point three. Inexperienced backfield. Don’t read this the wrong way. Will Shipley ended the season on a high note, but he still started the year as a freshman getting his first taste of big time football. Moving to the next level comes blocking and blitz pick-up responsibilities, all which affect the passing game. Shipley led the Tiger running backs in reps with 378, and had 149 rushes for 738 yards and 11 touchdowns. Kobe Pace was second on the team with 273 reps, 103 rushes, 641 yards and 6 touchdowns. Getting this full year under their belts builds on experience and both players should be better in all aspects. Coach Streeter will likely get Shipley more involved in the passing game. Checkdowns, coach, checkdowns. They are a quarterback’s best friend.
Point four. Play Calling. This is the aspect that a lot of people don’t want to talk about. In the first game of the year, DJ was sacked 7 times by the Georgia Bulldog defense. There was a LOT of pressure by the dawg’s defense up the middle, taking advantage of Clemson’s inexperience up front. The best way to alleviate pressure up the middle is roll outs and moving pockets, neither which were really utilized. It seemed like it took OC Tony Elliott seven games to figure out that Trevor Lawrence, Cornell Powell, Amari Rodgers and Travis Etienne were no longer on the field. Pundits will say “Hey, he was OC for two National Championships.” Come on, let’s get real, Trevor and Deshaun were above all the rest, and amateurs like us could have called plays for that offense.
Once Elliott finally put all the pieces together on the kind of offense he really had, the offense started to click. Shipley rushed for 475 yards and six touchdowns in the final 5 games (he sat out the UConn game) and Pace had 300 yards and three touchdowns in the last three games of the season. The injury train at WR meant that two true freshmen, Beaux and Dacari Collins, and walkon receiver Will Swinney would be the main targets over the last four or five games.
Coach Streeter has to hit the ground running with the offense, and no one knows it more than him.
In summary, it was an awkward year for the entire offense, including DJ Uiagalelei. No, he was not terrible. No, he did not play as well as fans expected, but it wasn’t because he is terrible. There were a lot of factors to the end result, but those factors are easily flipped in 2022. DJ is only one of the factors. Do not be surprised if this team comes out firing on all cylinders against Georgia Tech. If it doesn’t, there will be a Point Five. Cade Klubnik is waiting in the wings.