D.J. Uiagalelei was designed for greatness.
He's 6-foot-4,250 pounds, and built like a defensive end. His Clemson teammates annoy him that he should play the fullback, but that would be a waste of arguably the strongest arm in college football. There is no throw that Uiagalelei cannot make. He got his first Power 5 scholarship offer in sixth grade, and he had half a dozen more before starting high school. He is easy to get along with, funny and loud to people who have known him since childhood, "an old soul" who would rather watch movies or hang out with his family than enjoy the attention that comes with fame. It is the complete package, an eye-catcher for fame.
Nobody should be surprised that the limelight has found Uiagalelei. It's just the timing. This is a meteoric rise, even by its standards.
Uiagalelei will begin his second career in college on Saturday. It comes after Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19 late last week. After fans immediately spent two days debating how soon the sport's greatest star could return. But immediately after Uiagalelei threw 342 yards in the 34:28 comeback win over Boston College, Dabo Swinney made it official.
This was Uiagalelei's team for Notre Dame Week.
If you're not entirely familiar with Clemson's new QB, this is your chance to play catch-up. Nine Things You Should Know About The Next Biggest Star Of College Football Before He Lead The Tigers To South Bend For A 4th Place Showdown In Notre Dame In The Biggest Game Of Clemson's Season And The Biggest Leg Of His Young Career.
He knows his last name is difficult to pronounce
After Uiagalelei was announced as the starter for this week's game, Clemson posted a video on Twitter of teammates trying to pronounce his last name. It didn't go well.
Now at Quarterback, No. 5 … @DJUiagalelei pic.twitter.com/fWmrtMaSDY
– Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 30, 2020
"I think one person said 'wobbly slipstream'," Uiagalelei said.
Another teammate notes with some certainty: "It's not a ukulele."
Most people just call him D.J. or, as recipient Cornell Powell suggested, "Money Man," an inside joke about Uiagalelei's ability to make money when it counts.
Uiagalelei's preferred nickname is "Big 5inco" – a nod to its size and uniform number. High school teammates in California called him "Cinco" until one day the modifier was added and he liked the sound. He started adding # Big5inco to his Instagram posts and this summer he used a little leftover scholarship to buy a gold chain with the nickname on it. "Money Man" knows how to create a brand.
"You can call me whatever you want," said Uiagalelei – ideally not, however, "Wiggly Lee".
For the record, it's oo-ee-AHN-guh-luh-lay.
He always had a big arm
Uiagalelei started throwing a soccer ball with his father "Big Dave" when he was two years old, and even then his father believed he had a child prodigy on his hands.
"You could see the mechanics," his father said of Uiagalelei's early years in football. "The ball just came out so smoothly."
When Uiagalelei was 9, he played in a Pop Warner league with kids in junior high and was clearly the best player on his team. His youth was easy to miss, as he was the same size as the older children and had the arm of someone twice his age.
In high school, the reputation only grew. His trainer at St. John Bosco, Jason Negro, said he trained with or against dozens of big QB prospects from Carson Palmer to Josh Rosen, and none have the arm strength of Uiagalelei.
Swinney recalls a camp that Uiagalelei in Clemson attended with 1,500 children of different abilities. The Clemson trainer was casually watching a throwing exercise when he saw Uiagalelei trigger a laser and Swinney panicked and hurried to put the smaller receivers out of line.
"He can't just throw the ball at anyone," said Swinney. "He's got a cannon and I think he tried to show it off. And those kids – someone would get hurt."
That story made the rounds on social media, leading Clemson's backup QB Ben Batson to join in on his own big story.
"I'll never forget his first training session," Batson recalled. "I had to warm up with him and freeze my hands after training. No lie."
Negro recalls a throw Uiagalelei made against Mater Dei in a state championship game that he still cannot believe. It was just before halfway and Uiagalelei dropped a missile on Kris Hutson, who is now in Oregon. It was this back-shoulder throw that hit the receiver 25 meters behind the field.
"I don't think it was ever more than five meters above the ground," said Steele, "but it was an absolute laser."
Then there's the showdown against Justin Fields – a long ball challenge in 2017 when Uiagalelei was still in its sophomore year. Fields, number 1 among the recruits a year later, stood at the 30, took five steps, and launched the ball 80 yards. Uiagalelei seemed unimpressed. Uiagalelei wore a gray T-shirt that was wrapped tightly around his biceps and a black cap that was turned back and flipped up. The ball sailed 85 yards in the air. The entire crowd responded in unison: "Oh my god."
Or ask Chris Steele, now DB at USC, who was once forced to take on Uiagalelei in practice at St. John Bosco.
"D.J. could throw 75 on a bright day without warming up," said Steele. "He is second to none."
He actually wanted to play baseball
Uiagalelei's first love wasn't football. Indeed, in sixth grade he was ready to give up the sport entirely – along with his family and school, all thanks to a slight misinterpretation of Mariano Rivera's autobiography.
Uiagalelei was a big fan of the New York Yankees' Star Relievers, and he'd read that Rivera dropped out of school at the age of 12 to play full-time baseball and signed a professional contract at the age of 15 to get him out saved poverty in the Dominican Republic.
It all sounded pretty good to Uiagalelei.
"I told my parents I wanted to drop out of school and they should send me to the Dominican Republic," said Uiagalelei, "so I could play baseball all day."
Uiagalelei's parents wisely declined this option, and by the time he got to high school he had fallen in love with the drama and energy of football, which he was focused on.
Playing baseball as a freshman in high school, he split the time between games on the diamond and spring soccer practice, where he tried to win his first QB job. He skipped his second baseball season but played again as a junior and returned to the Pitcher & # 39; s Mound for the first time in four years.
"It was electrifying," said Don Barbara, St. John Bosco baseball coach.
However, just before the spring season, Uiagalelei cut his hand on a medicine cabinet and required surgery, forcing him to miss most of the season. Then he decided to join Clemson early in January and keep him away from the baseball field again.
"If he had played a full season with us," said Barbara, "I would have had no doubt that he would have been a draft pick in the first round."
ESPN Daily Podcast: David Hale Attends Show To Talk About D.J. Uiagalelei.
His favorite QB is not what one would think of
Half-Samoan on his father's side, Uiagalelei takes pride in the legacy of Polynesian quarterbacks who have enjoyed success in college football from Marcus Mariota to Tua Tagovailoa. In fact, he can run a full list of players from the islands he looked up to.
His favorite? It's not one of the Heisman contenders. It was actually Mariota's Oregon predecessor, Jeremiah Masoli.
"That was my favorite quarterback growing up," said Uiagalelei.
Of course, most of these guys were playing on the west coast, and Uiagalelei said he was excited to be something of a Clemson ambassador to other Polynesians who might not have viewed the south as a likely landing site.
"I'm probably the first Polynesian to come to Clemson," he said.
And all of that can be chalked down to another QB – albeit not from the islands.
Uiagalelei said when he was in middle school it was former Tigers Great Tajh Boyd who introduced him to Clemson. He loved watching Boyd go deep on game day, and he thought the offense would suit him well too. Six years later, that's exactly what happened.
Josh Morgan / USA TODAY Sports
He almost went to Alabama
Clemson is notoriously stingy with scholarship offers. As Swinney likes to say, "We don't practice recruiting," and Clemson doesn't usually look for quarterbacks in California. With more than 70 offers at the beginning of its second season, Uiagalelei was never really on Swinney's radar.
But as fate would have it, Defense Coordinator Brent Venables was in the west, recruiting a linebacker when he stopped to meet with Negro.
"We have this quarterback," Negro said before Venables cut him off, reminding the St. John Bosco coach that Clemson doesn't fish for QBs without a good idea that they are going to land a big one.
"I love that story that everyone thinks Clemson recruited him," said Big Dave Uiagalelei, "and the fact is, D.J. had to ask his head coach to ask Clemson."
Venables called QB trainer Brandon Streeter. Streeter dug up a movie and then called Venables back.
"Yes, we might want to talk to this kid."
Uiagalelei was interested, but it wasn't sold, so he took a trip to visit the Alabama, Georgia and Clemson locations in the summer of his junior season.
His first stop was Alabama, and he loved it. He immediately called his father and said he was ready to commit. Big Dave supported the plan, but wanted his son to keep his options open. Go to the other schools, he suggested, and then decide.
Clemson was the last stop, and it took only one meeting to change Uiagalelei's mind.
"He needs to talk to Dabo," said Big Dave, "and it was over."
The two connected through religion. Swinney is loud about his beliefs, and Uiagalelei liked that too. He saw Swinney as a role model, both in the field and in his faith.
Uiagalelei wears a cache of ribbons on his left wrist, all with inscribed Bible verses, including one that he received as a birthday present from his cousin and that seems like a perfect start to his career. It is from Jeremiah and reads: "Call me and I will answer you and tell you great and mighty things."
He can run a little too
Uiagalelei is number 5 because he grew up for USC and loved Reggie Bush. In fact, he wanted to be just like the Trojans' star jam.
Just one problem: Bush was 6 feet, maybe 190 pounds in college. Uiagalelei is 6-4, 250. Apples and oranges.
"I would never be like Reggie," said Uiagalelei.
And yet, the big man can move, as he demonstrated last week in his starting debut against Boston College. Uiagalelei's 20-yard touchdown run set the stage for the Tigers' comeback and left BC defenders wondering how they had underestimated the 18-wheeler that just tumbled past them.
"I don't think D.J. is getting enough credit for how athletic he really is," said Danny Hernandez, Uiagalelei's private QB coach in high school. "Even watching now, I thought, look at him – that's a big boy moving right there."
Colby Bowman got his share of Uiagalelei passes in high school, enough to earn a Stanford scholarship. But ask Bowman what his former QB's favorite game is, and it's not an 80-yard throw.
"He took it 90 yards in a QB tie," Bowman said.
Bowman was on the field trying to block in front of his QB. He remembers looking back and finding Uiagalelei on his heels and thinking, "Man, this guy is keeping up with me."
"He's going to throw the ball 70 yards and then crawl and carry someone," Bowman said. "He's the whole package. That kid is a crazy athlete. I just don't get it."
In a nutshell from Negro: "We've had a lot of great quarterbacks here, but nobody has all the skills that D.J. has."
Still, he's not Reggie Bush. But there is a consolation prize. Uiagalelei received a text before last week's game against Boston College. It was from Bush.
"Are you ready for the game?" Bush wrote. "I have complete confidence in you."
Uiagalelei is not easily overwhelmed, but this moment was special.
"It was just amazing," he said. "I thought I have to be ready if Reggie thinks I am."
His father is his hype man
Everyone knows Big Dave. It's hard to miss him. He used to be a bodyguard for celebrities including Snoop Dogg and Nick Cannon, and he's … tall.
Big Dave is physically huge. When D.J. visited Clemson as a recruit, a horde of fans circled him after a game and everyone wanted an autograph. Big Dave fell back into safe mode and gently pushed people aside so his son could get through. But it's not just height. Big Dave's personality is immense. He is full of joy and enthusiasm and there is nothing he is more happy about than about his children.
Watch the television broadcast of last week's game against Boston College. In each series, the cameras trained on Big Dave and his wife – D.J. & # 39; s mother – Tausha, and Big Dave stood and hooted and screamed. He's been doing this since D.J. was in elementary school.
D.J. Uiagalelei shares a moment with his family after recording it for the score on his first career start for @ClemsonFB 🧡 pic.twitter.com/dvnLI5nTtM
– ACC Network (@accnetwork) October 31, 2020
All the excitement can be for D.J. be a problem. He is calm and understated. Even after last week's big win, D.J. narrated the 18-point win from behind with a degree of reluctance that approached boredom. It's the behavior of the west coast, D.J. said. He's always the coolest guy in the room.
Big Dave? Ah, not so much.
"I've promoted D.J. since he was 7 years old," said Big Dave.
It's pride sure, but it's also a little enterprising. Big Dave has been sharing videos of D.J.'s best games, big throws, and glowing reviews for years to market the kid so he would have greater opportunities. He made good money as a bodyguard, but he would be gone for months. When D.J. When he was 9 years old, he asked his father why he was away so much. It broke Big Dave's heart. He quit his job and started working as a clerk at a local school. It took him a month to earn what he'd done in a few days. Scraping up money for camps, private lessons, and classes in a place like St. John Bosco – that wasn't going to happen. So Big Dave set out to sell the rest of the world with the talent he knew his son had.
"I'm not out here saying my son is better," said Big Dave. "I'll never be Lavar Ball. I only share what other people post. But yeah, I'm damn sure a proud dad."
No wonder if D.J. When he found out he was going to be up against BC last week, his call came home with a warning, "Hey Dad, don't post any of this on social media."
Message received. Big Dave was silent until the news broke and then told every story he could find about his boy. That's what fathers do.
Even so, it's a problem for the humble D.J. so he found a simple solution. He blocked his father on Twitter.
But he's still kind of mommy's boy
If Big Dave is the hype man, Tausha Uiagalelei is D.J. to the real world. She holds her son on the ground.
"I'm a lot more like my mother," he said.
His old offensive coordinator at Bosco, Steven Lo, said he viewed Uiagalelei as an old man. He saw everything and never got nervous.
"I've never seen him and I could count the number of times I've seen him," said Lo. "I think you just dropped a dime between two defense lawyers. It's okay to be excited."
This reserved coolness, that's all it. Along with his "Big 5inco" chain, he has another one that he wears with a "T" pendant. This is for Tausha.
"Tausha provides him with the much needed balance," said Jessie Christensen, Bosco's manager of football operations. "At the end of the day, I think the first call for him is always to his mother."
Funny thing is D.J. don't mind a little hype if it's for his mother. When his Instagram page exploded when he landed the first appearance on Clemson, he wanted to give Tausha a little love too. So he posted a note encouraging his fans to "follow my mom" and create a link to her account.
And Notre Dame won't unsettle him
Uiagalelei stepped in front of a camera for a postgame zoom session with media after last week's win. He'd recorded three touchdowns and made an almost miraculous comeback to keep Clemson's playoff hopes alive and fend off a colossal surprise.
You'd think he'd been impressed with himself.
"When I was 18," he said coolly, "that wasn't a lot of points. I knew we'd be back."
It turns out he's right. Back in St. John Bosco, his team was 28-5 behind the powerhouse Mater Dei in the first half, and he then scored a win from behind. Uiagalelei joked with his teammates to ease the tension, led his offensive to a late result before halftime, gathered the boys in the locker room, drove the full length of the field again, waved his hands to keep the crowd going to bring, and then hit again. And again. And again, until Bosco took a 38:35 win.
So 18 points are child's play.
And you might assume Notre Dame is a slightly bigger stage, but Uiagalelei isn't impressed by that either.
He could have attended almost any college in the United States, but he chose to move across the country to join a team that already had a Star QB in Lawrence. He wanted to go somewhere where he would be challenged. And he wanted to learn from the established Tigers superstar.
He knows Notre Dame is a good school, he said. And it's pretty cool that they made a movie about Rudy. Otherwise? He didn't know much about the Irish until he sat down to watch a movie this week.
The funny thing is that Lawrence didn't have much to teach him this week. They shared a zoom screen while preparing for the Irish, and Lawrence will travel with the team and be on the sidelines for Saturday's game. But the offense is in Uiagalelei's hands, and Lawrence is not too concerned about it. His advice to Uiagalelei: keep calm, find your keys, play your game.
What else can you say to a man with so much talent? After all, it should be like that.
Big Dave got a call from a good friend after Saturday's game. The friend works with Snoop Dogg and they met when Big Dave provided security years ago. Back then, Big Dave kept going on about his boy, the huge 9-year-old with the cannon arm who would one day be a great quarterback.
Now his friend called to say congratulations. Not to D.J., but to his father.
"We all thought you were crazy," he said to Big Dave. "But man, you were right."