D.J. Uiagalelei was destined for greatness.
He’s 6-foot-4, 250 pounds and built like a defensive end. His Clemson teammates tease him that he ought to be playing fullback, but that would be a waste of arguably the strongest arm in college football. There’s not a throw Uiagalelei can’t make. He got his first Power 5 scholarship offer in the sixth grade, and he had a half-dozen more before he started high school. He’s affable, funny and, according to people who’ve known him since he was a kid, “an old soul,” who’d rather be watching film or hanging out with his family than reveling in the attention that comes with fame. He’s the complete package, a shoo-in for stardom.
No one should be surprised the spotlight has found Uiagalelei. It’s just the timing. This is a meteoric rise, even by his standards.
On Saturday, Uiagalelei will make his second career college start. It comes after Trevor Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19 late last week. After fans immediately spent two days debating the math on how soon the sport’s biggest star could return. But immediately after he threw for 342 yards in a 34-28 comeback win over Boston College, Dabo Swinney made it official.
This was Uiagalelei’s team for Notre Dame week.
So, if you’re not quite familiar with Clemson’s new QB, here’s your chance to play catchup, with nine things you should know about college football’s next big star before he leads the Tigers into South Bend for a showdown with No. 4 Notre Dame in the biggest game of Clemson’s season and the biggest stage of his young career
He knows his last name is tough to pronounce
After Uiagalelei was announced as the starter for this week’s game, Clemson put out a video on Twitter of teammates attempting to pronounce his last name. It didn’t go well.
— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 30, 2020
“I think one person said, like, ‘wiggly lee,'” Uiagalelei said.
Another teammate notes with some degree of certainty that, “it’s not ukulele.”
Most folks just call him D.J., or as receiver Cornell Powell suggested, “Money Man,” an inside joke about Uiagalelei’s ability to cash in when it counts.
Uiagalelei’s preferred moniker is “Big 5inco” — a nod to both his size and uniform number. High school teammates back in California called him “Cinco,” until one day the modifier was added, and he liked the sound of it. He started adding #Big5inco to his Instagram posts, and this summer, he used a little leftover stipend money to buy a gold chain with the nickname on it. “Money Man” knows how to create a brand.
“You guys can call me whatever you want,” Uiagalelei said — though ideally not “Wiggly Lee.”
For the record, it’s oo-ee-AHN-guh-luh-lay.
He has always had a big arm
Uiagalelei started tossing a football around with his dad, “Big Dave,” when he was 2, and even then, his father believed he had a 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 fluidly.”
By the time Uiagalelei was 9, he was playing in a Pop Warner league with kids in junior high and was clearly the best player on his team. His youth was easy to overlook because he was the same size as the older kids and had the arm of someone twice his age.
In high school, the reputation only grew. His coach at St. John Bosco, Jason Negro, said he has coached with or against dozens of big-time QB prospects from Carson Palmer to Josh Rosen, and none had the arm strength of Uiagalelei.
Swinney remembers a camp Uiagalelei attended at Clemson with 1,500 kids of varying ability. The Clemson coach was casually watching a throwing drill when he saw Uiagalelei unleash a laser, and Swinney panicked, rushing to shuffle the lesser receivers out of line.
“He can’t just throw the ball to anybody,” Swinney said. “He’s got a cannon, and I think he was trying to show it off. And those kids — somebody was going to get hurt.”
That story made the rounds on social media, which prompted Clemson’s backup QB Ben Batson to chime in with his own tall tale.
“His first practice, I’ll never forget,” Batson recalled. “I had to warm up with him, and I had to go ice my hands after practice. No lie.”
Negro remembers a throw Uiagalelei made against Mater Dei in a state championship game that he still can’t believe. It was just before the half, and Uiagalelei unleashed a rocket to Kris Hutson, who’s now at Oregon. It was this back-shoulder throw, hitting the receiver 25 yards downfield.
“I don’t think the thing ever went more than 5 yards off the ground,” Steele said, “but it was an absolute laser.”
Then there’s the showdown against Justin Fields — a long-ball challenge back in 2017, when Uiagalelei was just a sophomore. Fields, the No. 1 overall recruit a year later, lined up at the 30, took five steps and launched the ball 80 yards. Uiagalelei seemed unimpressed. Wearing a gray t-shirt wrapped tight around his bicep and a black hat turned backward and tipped up, Uiagalelei took a hop-step from the 30 and unleashed. The ball sailed 85 yards in the air. The entire crowd reacted in unison: “Oh my God.”
Or ask Chris Steele, now a DB at USC, who was once forced to go against Uiagalelei in practice at St. John Bosco.
“D.J. could throw 75 on a light day with no warm-ups,” Steele said. “He’s second to none.”
He actually wanted to play baseball
Uiagalelei’s first love wasn’t football. In fact, when he was in sixth grade, he was ready to give up the sport altogether — along with his family and school, all thanks to a slight misreading of Mariano Rivera’s autobiography.
Uiagalelei was a huge fan of the New York Yankees star reliever, and he’d read that Rivera dropped out of school at age 12 to pursue baseball full time, signing a professional contract at age 15 that rescued him from poverty in the Dominican Republic.
That all sounded pretty good to Uiagalelei.
“I told my parents I wanted to drop out of school and have them to ship me off to the Dominican Republic,” Uiagalelei said, “so I could play baseball full time.”
Uiagalelei’s parents wisely declined that option, and by the time he got to high school, he’d fallen in love with the drama and energy of football, which became his focus.
He played baseball as a freshman in high school, splitting time between games on the diamond and spring football practice, where he was trying to win the starting QB job. He sat out his sophomore baseball season but played again as a junior, returning to the pitcher’s mound for the first time in four years.
“It was electrifying,” said St. John Bosco baseball coach Don Barbara.
Shortly before the spring season, however, Uiagalelei cut his hand on a medicine cabinet and needed surgery, which forced him to miss the bulk of the season. Then he decided to enroll early at Clemson in January, keeping him off the baseball field once again.
“If he’d gotten to pitch with us for a full season,” Barbara said, “there’s no doubt in my mind he’d have been a first-round draft pick.”
ESPN Daily podcast: David Hale joins the show to talk all about D.J. Uiagalelei.
His favorite QB isn’t who you’d think
Uiagalelei is half-Samoan, on his father’s side, and he said he takes pride in the heritage of Polynesian quarterbacks who have found success in college football, from Marcus Mariota to Tua Tagovailoa. In fact, he can run off a full list of players from the islands who he looked up to.
His favorite, though? It’s not one of the Heisman contenders. It was actually Mariota’s predecessor at Oregon, Jeremiah Masoli.
“That was my favorite quarterback growing up,” Uiagalelei said.
Of course, most of those guys played on the West Coast, and Uiagalelei said he’s excited to be something of a Clemson ambassador for other Polynesians who might not have considered the South a likely landing spot.
“I’m probably the first Polynesian in Clemson,” he said.
And all of that can be chalked up to another QB — though not one from the islands.
Uiagalelei said that, 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 be a good fit for him, too. Six years later, that’s exactly what’s happened.
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 typically go looking for quarterbacks in California. So Uiagalelei, with more than 70 offers in hand by the start of his sophomore season, was never really on Swinney’s radar.
But, as fate would have it, defensive coordinator Brent Venables was out west recruiting a linebacker when he stopped to meet with Negro.
“We’ve got this quarterback,” Negro said, before Venables interrupted, reminding the St. John Bosco coach that Clemson doesn’t go fishing for QBs without a good idea they’re going to land a big one.
“I love that story, that everyone thinks Clemson came recruiting him,” Big Dave Uiagalelei said, “and the fact is, D.J. had to ask his head coach to ask Clemson.”
Venables called QB coach Brandon Streeter. Streeter dug up some film, then called Venables back.
“Yeah, we might want to talk to this kid.”
Uiagalelei was interested, but he wasn’t sold, so he took a trip in the summer after his junior season to visit campuses at Alabama, Georgia and Clemson.
His first stop was Alabama, and he loved it. He immediately called his dad and said he was ready to commit. Big Dave supported the plan, but he wanted his son to keep his options open. Go visit the other schools, he suggested, then decide.
Clemson was the last stop, and it took just one meeting to change Uiagalelei’s mind.
“He got to talk to Dabo,” Big Dave said, “and it was over.”
The two bonded over religion. Swinney is vocal about his faith, and that appealed to Uiagalelei, too. He saw Swinney as a role model, both on the field and in his faith.
Uiagalelei wears a cache of bands on his left wrist, all with Bible verses inscribed, including one he got as a birthday gift from his cousin that seems a perfect prelude to his career. It’s from Jeremiah, and it reads: “Call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and mighty things.”
He can run a little, too
Uiagalelei wears No. 5 because he grew up rooting for USC, and he loved Reggie Bush. In fact, he wanted to be just like the Trojans’ star tailback.
Just one problem: Bush was 6-foot, maybe 190 pounds in college. Uiagalelei is 6-4, 250. Apples and oranges.
“I was never going to be like Reggie,” Uiagalelei said.
And yet, the big man can move, as he showed in his starting debut against Boston College last week. Uiagalelei’s 20-yard touchdown run set the stage for the Tigers’ comeback and left BC’s defenders wondering how they’d underestimated the 18-wheeler that just rumbled past them.
“I don’t think that D.J. gets enough credit for how athletic he really is,” said Danny Hernandez, Uiagalelei’s private QB coach in high school. “Even watching now, I was like, look at him — that’s a big boy moving right there.”
Colby Bowman caught his share of passes from Uiagalelei in high school, enough to earn a scholarship to Stanford. But ask Bowman for his favorite play from his former QB, and it’s not an 80-yard throw.
“He took it 90 yards on a QB draw,” Bowman said.
Bowman was downfield trying to block ahead of his QB, and he remembers looking back and finding Uiagalelei on his heels and thinking, ‘Man, this guy’s keeping up with me.’
“He’s going to throw the ball 70 yards downfield and then scramble and truck someone,” Bowman said. “He’s the whole package. The kid’s a freak athlete. I just don’t understand it.”
Put more succinctly by Negro: “We’ve had a lot of great quarterbacks around here, but nobody has had the whole skill set that D.J. has.”
Still, he’s no Reggie Bush. But there is a consolation prize. Before last week’s game against Boston College, Uiagalelei got a text. It was from Bush.
“You ready for the game?” Bush wrote. “I have total faith in you.”
Uiagalelei doesn’t get overwhelmed easily, but this moment was special.
“It was just amazing,” he said. “I was like, I’ve got to be ready if Reggie thinks I am.”
His dad is his hype man
Everybody 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 is … big.
Physically, Big Dave is huge. When D.J. visited Clemson as a recruit, a horde of fans circled him after a game, all wanting an autograph. Big Dave fell back into security mode, gently moving people aside so his son could get through. But it’s not just the body size. Big Dave’s personality is immense. He’s full of joy and enthusiasm, and there’s nothing he gets more excited about than his kids.
Watch the TV broadcast of last week’s game against Boston College. Every series, the cameras would train on Big Dave and his wife — D.J.’s mom — Tausha, and Big Dave would be standing and whooping and yelling. He has been doing that since D.J. was in grade school.
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) October 31, 2020
Thing is, all that enthusiasm can be a bit of a problem for D.J. He’s quiet, understated. Even after last week’s big win, D.J. recounted the 18-point come-from-behind victory with a level of aloofness that approached boredom. It’s that West Coast demeanor, 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,” Big Dave said.
It’s pride, for sure, but it’s also a little business savvy. Big Dave has been sharing videos of D.J.’s best games, big throws and glowing reviews for years as a way of marketing the kid so bigger opportunities would come his way. He made good money as a body guard, but he’d be away for months at a time. When D.J. was 9, he asked his father why he was gone so much. It broke Big Dave’s heart. He quit his job and started working as a resource officer at a local school. It took him a month to earn what he used to make in a few days. Scratching together money for camps, private coaching and tuition at a place like St. John Bosco — that wasn’t going to happen. So Big Dave got to work selling the rest of the world on the talent he knew his son possessed.
“I’m not out here saying my son is better,” Big Dave said. “I’ll never be Lavar Ball. All I do is share what other people post. But yes, I’m for damn sure a proud dad.”
No wonder when D.J. found out he’d be starting last week against BC, his phone call home came with a warning: “Hey, dad, don’t post any of this on social media.”
Message received. Big Dave kept quiet until the news broke, and then he shared every story he could find about his boy. That’s what dads do.
Still, it’s a bit of an issue for the unassuming D.J., so he found an easy solution. He has blocked his father on Twitter.
But he’s still kind of a mama’s boy
If Big Dave is the hype man, Tausha Uiagalelei is D.J.’s tether to the real world. She keeps her son grounded.
“I’m a lot more like my mom,” he said.
His old offensive coordinator at Bosco, Steven Lo, said he thinks of Uiagalelei as an old man. He has seen it all, and he’s never flustered.
“I’ve never seen him down, and I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen him up,” Lo said. “I’m like, you just dropped a dime between two defenders. It’s OK to be excited.”
That reserved coolness, that’s all her. So along with his “Big 5inco” chain, he has another one he wears with a “T” pendant. That’s for Tausha.
“Tausha provides a much needed balance for him,” said Jessie Christensen, Bosco’s football operations manager. “At the end of the day, I think the first call for him always goes to his mom.”
Funny thing is, D.J. doesn’t mind a little hype if it’s for his mom. As his Instagram page blew up when he landed the starting gig at Clemson, he wanted to give Tausha a little love, too, so he posted a note encouraging his fans to “go follow my mommy” with a link to her account.
And he isn’t going to be rattled by Notre Dame
Uiagalelei stepped in front of a camera for a postgame Zoom session with media after last week’s win. He’d accounted for three touchdowns and engineered a near-miraculous comeback to keep Clemson’s playoff hopes alive and stave off a colossal upset.
You’d think he might’ve been impressed with himself.
“Being down 18,” he said coolly, “that’s not really a lot of points. I knew we were going to come back.”
Turns out, he’s right. Back at St. John Bosco, his team trailed powerhouse Mater Dei 28-5 in the first half, and he engineered a come-from-behind win then, too. Uiagalelei cracked jokes with teammates to ease the tension, led his offense to a late score before halftime, rallied the guys in the locker room, drove the length of the field again, waved his hands to get the crowd hyped, then scored again. And again. And again until Bosco closed out a 38-35 win.
So 18 points is child’s play.
And you might assume Notre Dame is a bit bigger stage, but Uiagalelei isn’t fazed by that either.
He could have gone to just about 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 he would be challenged. And he wanted to learn from the Tigers’ established superstar.
He knows Notre Dame is a good school, he said. And it’s pretty cool they made a movie about “Rudy.” Other than that? He didn’t know too much about the Irish until he sat down to watch film this week.
Funny thing is, Lawrence hasn’t had much to teach him this week. They’ve shared a Zoom screen during meetings prepping for the Irish, and Lawrence will travel with the team and be on the sideline for Saturday’s game. But the offense is in Uiagalelei’s hands, and Lawrence isn’t too worried about that. His advice for Uiagalelei: Stay calm, look for your keys, play your game.
What else can you tell a guy with this much talent? After all, this was meant to be.
Big Dave got a call from a good friend after Saturday’s game. The friend works with Snoop Dogg, and they’d met when Big Dave was doing security years ago. Back in those days, Big Dave would go on and on about his boy, the hulking 9-year-old with the cannon arm who was going to be a great quarterback one day.
Now, his friend was calling to say congratulations. Not to D.J., but to his dad.
“We all thought you were crazy,” he told Big Dave. “But man, you were right.”