I have had my fair share of humbling experiences. As a husband, a father, a student, a professional, a rec league soccer coach, at fantasy football – I am quite experienced at being humbled. I’ve only been a contributor to Seldom Used Reserve for a short time, but enough of my preseason picks have been off the mark that I have had to eat some humble pie already.
The Tigers got another serving of humble pie Saturday night, this time against the Georgia Bulldogs. The Tiger defense played quite well, holding the Bulldogs to three points offensively. It was the offense that took it on the nose Saturday, with their worst performance of the past decade. Georgia’s defense deserves all the credit in the world. Their line was spectacular, getting pressure on DJU with as few as three rushers. Their linebackers were quick, and their backs covered Clemson receivers well most of the night. Nonetheless, Clemson has played elite defenses before, and the results haven’t been this dismal in quite some time.
The problems started with the offensive line. It was well known that their run blocking was woeful last season, but the general belief was they were actually pretty good at pass blocking. Either they have taken a step back this season, or those problems were there all along, and Trevor Lawrence was special enough to mask them. Since they had so many problems, the running backs had no room to run, and DJU had very little time to process what was happening around him.
Let’s be honest: us fans got a serving of humble pie too. We have been very confident in the Clemson program for several years. When something has gone wrong, we’ve usually been able to point at an extenuating circumstance. As a result, we had a lot of confidence for this squad going into this game, and for good reason: Clemson had a lot of returning defensive talent and had recruited a lot of good talent on offense. They added some good depth on the offensive line, in the running back room and at wide receiver. We have seen Trevor Lawrence, Justyn Ross and Travis Etienne come in as true freshmen and become alphas in their first season. I think a lot of us just assumed guys like Will Shipley and Tristan Leigh would come in and be ready right away, but we if we jumped to conclusions about anyone, it was DJ Uiagalelei.
We saw DJ step in last season as a starter and lead Clemson to a huge comeback win against Boston College, and then throw for a ton of yards against Notre Dame. He had all the tools physically; he looked comfortable in the pocket and didn’t have a problem finding the open receivers against a Top 5 team. He looked confident. We thought we had found the next guy who was ready to play right out of the gate, and with a year to learn the system and mentor with Lawrence, why wouldn’t he be a star right away?
We learned those expectations were unrealistic this past Saturday. As stated before, DJU had a pitifully small amount of time to process everything around him, but that doesn’t mean that he wasn’t part of the problem. His receivers were covered well most of the game, but there were several times he didn’t see guys running open. When he did see them, he often missed them. He lacked touch on his passes. He was hesitant to pull the trigger in the pocket and took way too many sacks. It was clear the pressure rattled him.
Were we wrong? Is DJU just not the guy we thought? Well, yes, obviously he isn’t. Yet. But that isn’t his fault. It’s our fault.
We were so overjoyed by the fact that DJU led Clemson to a great comeback against BC that we overlooked that they fell far behind with him at the helm in the first place. We made excuses for him: ETN coughed up the ball and gave BC an easy score, special teams committed a penalty that extended a drive, etc. We were so impressed with his statistics against Notre Dame that we overlooked the very real fact that it was a loss. We chose to place the blame on the defense and the unusual number of injuries that decimated the starting lineup. ETN coughed up the ball again for a freak touchdown. We rationalized it in a way that we still had something to get excited about and ignored the very stark reality that end results on the scoreboard weren’t great. Now after the Georgia game, that reality is smacking us right in the face: DJU now has as many losses in three games as Trevor Lawrence had in three seasons. Tough opponents, yes, but time to stop making excuses.
There is nothing wrong with DJU – he is exactly what we should have understood him to be: a new starting quarterback with a minimal amount of experience. The one thing we need to do is to stop assuming that DJU is going to be the next great Clemson quarterback that is going to achieve like Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence combined and walk away with the Heisman Trophy. We, as fans, got carried away. It was unfair to assume that DJU would come right out of the gate against Georgia and handle the rush like a truly experienced quarterback. Clemson could have started DW against Georgia as a freshman: we would have still lost that game. T-Law played a good amount of time as a freshman at Texas A&M: if we hadn’t put Kelly Bryant back in the game, we would have lost. Neither was ready right out of the gate. It took at least a month before they were ready to take charge, and even then, neither was nearly as good as they would later become.
What is important to accept is that DJU is not ready for primetime. He isn’t DW or T-Law. What is important to understand is that he can still grow into that mold. His journey starts in earnest this weekend against SC State, with an opportunity to get his confidence back. After that follows Georgia Tech and a road game against a good NC State team.
DJU won’t be alone in this journey. The offensive line must grow too. We may see a lot of different line combinations against SC State and Georgia Tech. We may find that some of the guys we thought we would rely on this season may be phased out in favor of younger players that we have been told “aren’t ready.” We are going to see a lot of lineup changes at running back and wide receiver to determine our best lineup.
The moral of the story for me is that I am done jumping to conclusions, because it isn’t fair to these young men on the field to continue to put them on a pedestal when they aren’t ready for that. When they are ready, they will let us know.