The job that pays the bills and one of my jobs that doesn’t pay the bills (soccer dad/team manager) took a lot of my time last week, which didn’t allow much time to write for Seldom Used Reserve, but with the out-of-town soccer tournament complete, this week should be a little lighter. I originally thought I would write my normal “What I Learned” article after the UConn game. I sat down to go through my thoughts on Clemson’s performance Saturday. I came up with the theme of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The good is obviously the defense, which pitched a shutout against the Huskies. Honestly, a team with a defense as good as Clemson’s should expect to shutout an opponent like UConn, which has had a brutal year on offense, but you can never predict turnovers in the redzone, busted coverage plays that can get a team close enough for a field goal, etc., so the fact they did hold the Huskie offense scoreless is commendable. The Ugly was Clemson special teams, which gave up an embarrassing opening kick return for a touchdown to give UConn their only points of the day. Gag.
Obviously, that leaves the Bad, and that leaves the offense, which was exactly that: bad. This shouldn’t come as a shock. They have been bad all season long. This is presently where the Tiger offense stands in the FBS after Week 11 (per teamrankings.com). Keep in mind there are 130 teams in the FBS, only 65 of which are considered Power 5 teams:
These numbers can’t be denied. Clemson’s offense is flat-out bad. DJ Uiagalelei’s numbers are equally dismal:
And that, ladies & gentlemen, is about all I can show you, because other lists, like completion percentage and quarterback rating, only list the Top 100 quarterbacks, and DJ isn’t listed, which means he is outside the Top 100. The 100th best completion percentage, Rocky Lombardi of Northern Illinois, has a 58.2% rate, and DJ’s is 54.9%. The 100th best quarterback rating, Chevan Cordeiro of Hawaii, has a 123.1 rating, and DJ has a 107.4. He also has a total of 11 turnovers this year (seven interceptions and four fumbles).
Then that moment came in my head, the moment that came after the Georgia game, after the NC State game, and every game in which the offense’s performance was so disappointing. I asked myself “Is it fair to blame it all on DJ?” The short answer: no, it isn’t fair to blame it all on DJ. Clemson’s offensive line has been bad all year too. Clemson’s wide receivers have blocked poorly and had a high number of drops in the first third of the season. Clemson’s running backs were young and, in hindsight, some of the elder backs we thought we could rely on didn’t have their heads in the right place. Through the first few games, there was plenty of blame to pass around, and while we couldn’t possibly make an argument that DJ was playing good football, we could easily see that the hand he was dealt wasn’t very good. It was difficult to convince a lot of fans that they should be patient with DJ. Some fans weren’t hearing that at all. From their perspective, they already knew that DJ was a bad quarterback, and they felt the opposite: it was DJ’s bad performances that were bringing down the rest of the offense. The objective fans had to stand up to that rush to judgement and give DJ the benefit of the doubt that he hadn’t had a great opportunity to be successful yet. It’s not DJ’s fault that the line didn’t block well for him, or that the receivers dropped wide open passes. The staff saw it & objective fans saw it.
As Clemson meandered through October, the offense found a couple games where they were able to show improvement. Not drastic improvement, as a lot of fans hoped for, but noticeable steps forward. Some changes in personnel yielded better play on the offensive line. The wide receivers cut way back on the drops, and the running backs improved their performance significantly. DJ showed small improvements too – he didn’t start playing like the guy that had the 2nd best odds to win the Heisman that showed up in Fansville commercials, but he did improve….slightly.
Then the UConn game happened. DJ was injured. The interior of the offensive line was depleted due to injuries and transfer departures. Multiple wide receivers were out for the game, and WR star Justyn Ross departed during the game. The coaching staff elected to hold Clemson’s top two running backs out for health reasons. In the end, Clemson’s offense scored 44 points on the Huskies (technically the first score was on special teams, but the offense did get them down into the redzone), but just like the South Carolina State performance, the scoreboard wasn’t representative of the real story. The Tiger offense was dreadful on 3rd down. The interior couldn’t provide space for Phil Mafah and Darrien Rencher to run. Last, but not least, DJ had another underwhelming day. His great touchdown pass to Beaux Collins couldn’t cover up the poor accuracy that plagued DJ all day. Instead of a problem with receivers dropping passes, they had to lay out just to get their hands on passes that weren’t on target. Things looked up for the Tigers when Taisun Phommachanh came into the game and lead Clemson to a touchdown, but then he didn’t return to the game. Coach Swinney confirmed after the game that Taisun was injured and couldn’t return, but it was hard to see where and how he got hurt.
It was hard to absorb DJ’s performance Saturday without being very disappointed in his performance. This was Week 11. It wasn’t Week 1 against a Top Five opponent. This wasn’t Week 2 against an opponent that Clemson should overwhelm. This was UConn. But, but…wait for it….“Is it fair to blame it all on DJ?” Again, no, it isn’t fair to blame it all on DJ. As we mentioned, the running game did him no favors, but the most obvious thing to point at was DJ’s injury. He was clearly not healthy. He was barely mobile. He couldn’t set his feet and deliver the ball with good mechanics, something he already struggled with this season. After Taisun’s touchdown drive, I thought it was a foregone conclusion that DJ wouldn’t return. Why throw him back out there when he was hurt? Thanks to the Taisun injury, DJ was sent out there instead of Hunter Helms.
To sum up, once again, we are sitting here after a football Saturday disappointed that DJ played so poorly, but like always, we can point elsewhere in the offense to explain why DJ hasn’t performed up to expectations. Should we be doing that, especially so late in the season? Should we really be sitting here looking for reasons to deflect blame from DJ? After all, when has it ever been completely the quarterback’s fault that a team plays poorly? There is a name for a reason to deflect blame – an excuse. How long exactly must we wait before all the built-in excuses – a less than ideal line, better receivers, veteran running backs, no injuries – are rectified and we can finally judge DJ’s abilities as a quarterback of a Power 5 program that has come to aspire for national championships? Next year? Two years?
I am a big fan of criticizing the performance, and not the performer. I admit I am not always good at practicing that wisdom, but even the best performers have a bad performance from time to time. It is important to not trash someone just because they have a bad day, but there is also a wisdom that eventually, if a performer has a lot of bad days, with very few good ones, eventually you must accept that they are not a good performer. I think a lot of people wisely withheld judgement about DJ as a performer, and instead judged the performances, and simply asked questions about the performer, because we didn’t have a lot of performances to evaluate. One can ask questions, and ponder the answer to those questions, without passing judgement. We are now in Week 11 of the season, and we have more performances to critique, and to date, we don’t have a single performance from DJ that we can justifiably call good. We have a couple that can be called average, but that’s about as far as one can go without getting carried away.
Will Swinney pic.twitter.com/DElW0Msx3V— Seldom Used Reserve (@seldomusedres) November 15, 2021
I get it – there were things that made it difficult for DJ, but at what point do we stop making excuses?
Before we go further, let’s make sure we understand the two words and their meanings:
Right now, there are a decent number of people making excuses for DJ. They don’t want to have to be the bad guy. I don’t blame them, but we also need to understand that being objective and admitting that DJ isn’t a good quarterback doesn’t translate to being mean to DJ. We aren’t saying anything negative about DJ as a person, anything negative about his family, his faith or his future. A bad quarterback today can become a good quarterback in the future. Pitt’s Kenny Pickett wasn’t a very good quarterback when he took over, but he did enough to show his potential. Since Pitt isn’t known for bringing in top tier QB recruits year over year, Pickett was their best option even when he wasn’t playing great, so they stuck with him. After a few years of hard work, he became the player we see today, who is likely to be a draft pick this year. Four years ago, he wasn’t the same quarterback. The difference is that Clemson can’t wait four years for DJ to develop.
Clemson needs to be realistic, or otherwise they could be making the same mistake that Miami made with Al Golden.
Al Golden was the head coach of the Hurricanes for five seasons from 2011 to 2015. He was hired by Miami after a five-season stint at Temple, a program that had been so bad that they had been kicked out of the Big East Conference. Golden coached up the Owls to back-to-back winning records and bowl appearances. He was the hottest coaching name around following the 2010 season, and Miami landed Golden for their head coaching job. Following the disappointment of the Randy Shannon era, Miami needed a coach who could bring the Hurricanes back to prominence quickly. They had already made one unsuccessful hire following the dismissal of Larry Coker. They were already ten years past their last national title. Golden only needed three seasons to take Temple from epic doormat to bowl bids. If Golden could make Temple a winner, he could make anyone a winner. Miami’s cupboard wasn’t bare, so the thought was Golden shouldn’t need all that long to get results. Miami’s expectations weren’t set low – Shannon was fired after a 7-5 season. Success for Golden meant getting Miami into plus territory in the win column, and fast.
Almost immediately, the Golden era started with problems. A former booster, Nevin Shapiro, made accusations regarding improper benefits for players and recruits during the Shannon tenure, and Miami quickly self-imposed sanctions, including a reduction in scholarships, which impacted Golden’s first three recruiting classes, either directly or indirectly. Just the threat of harsher sanctions was enough for competitor’s to negatively recruit against the Hurricanes. Golden’s first season saw a drop in record to 6-6, followed by a 7-5 record in 2012. After two years, the Hurricanes were no better off than they were when they fired Shannon, but Golden had a significant amount of support from Miami. None of the problems he was coping with were of his creation. They found reasons to justify why the coach they had just hired had produced no better results than the coach they had fired. It wasn’t just Miami fans that felt this way – the school was applauded by most observers for practicing patience.
It sure did seem like the patience had paid off when the 2013 squad started 7-0, which included a win over the Florida Gators. The Hurricanes rose to #7 in the polls. Then, the wheels fell off. Miami lost three in a row, including to rival Florida State, who went on to win the national championship. It turns out that ‘13 Florida team, which was ranked #12 when Miami beat them, would finish the season 4-8. Miami finished the season unranked, with a loss in their bowl game, but at nine wins appeared to show improvement, and was the preseason favorite to win the Coastal in 2014, for the first time since Miami had joined the ACC. That 2014 team stumbled to 6-6 and lost another bowl game to finish with an overall losing record.
There were no “reasons” that anyone could find why the 2013 collapsed and the 2014 team favored to win the Coastal would have a losing record. Suddenly, Miami fans realized that the ‘reasons’ they pointed at to explain Golden’s lack of progress had been excuses. There was nothing to point at anymore. All the challenges beyond Golden’s control were gone. He just wasn’t a good coach.
Most Clemson fans remember how it ended for Golden. He went into 2015 squarely on the hot seat. October 24, 2015. Clemson at Miami. Miami entered at 4-2. The Tigers were undefeated, but there were a lot of people who didn’t have faith in Clemson. Some thought the underdog Hurricanes had a good shot at the upset at home. Clemson was ahead 45-0 by halftime. The final was 58-0. It was the worst defeat in the 90-year history of the Hurricanes program. Golden was fired the next day.
Patience is a virtue, and one can point at other situations to counter the lessons learned from the tale of Al Golden. Clemson fans are often quick to point out Dabo Swinney as an example of how being patient with a coach can pay off. Coach Swinney’s 2nd season was not good, finishing with a 6-7 record, but even by then, Swinney had accomplished something Coach Tommy Bowden couldn’t – he won an Atlantic Division title and got his team in the ACC Championship game. Coach Swinney found success right away. That was a reason to be patient, not an excuse. In hindsight, all Golden had for the lack of progress were excuses.
One might point at the passing yards in the two games DJ played in 2020 in relief of Trevor Lawrence as a reason – something he accomplished instead of excuses where we point the finger elsewhere for why he hasn’t played well. That is a fair point, but a point that is fading farther and farther in the rearview mirror the longer we go. Another ‘reason’ people point to is his high school career and subsequent rating as a recruit. DJ was a 5-star recruit with a .9949 rating on the 24/7 Composite. For perspective, here are a few other ratings:
Max Browne? Who in the world is Max Browne?
Browne was a member of the Class of 2013 and was the #1 pro-style quarterback in the class, the #11 player overall. He was 6-5, 230 lbs. He had everything one would want to see physically in a college quarterback, and the kind of player who could develop into a prototype NFL prospect. Browne committed to the USC Trojans and looked to be next in the long line of Southern Cal QB’s to find success in college ball. Instead, Browne failed to beat out Cody Kessler three seasons in a row, redshirting the first, and serving as a backup for the next two. When Browne was finally named the starting quarterback in 2016, he made it three games (1-2) before he was benched in favor of redshirt freshman Sam Darnold, who would proceed to go 9-1 and lead the Trojans to a Rose Bowl victory against Penn State. Browne transferred to Pittsburgh, where he was named the starting quarterback for the Panthers to start the season, but again lasted three games before he was benched in favor of Ben DiNucci. While Browne would see more playing time, he was eventually injured, ending a unnoteworthy career. Fun fact: Pitt started freshman Kenny Pickett in their last game of the season, which was an upset victory over Miami that knocked them out of the playoff hunt under Golden’s successor, Mark Richt.
There are more examples like Trevor Lawrence than there are Max Browne, but the point is that a lofty high school rating doesn’t automatically mean that someone will be a good college quarterback, any more than a lower rating means they can’t turn out to be a lot better than anyone expected. Based on the 24/7 Composite rating, you certainly wouldn’t think that Sam Darnold or Kenny Pickett should have been a better player than Max Browne, but they certainly were. Darnold was selected in the NFL Draft, and Pickett likely will be selected. Even Ben DiNucci transferred to James Madison and got drafted in the 7th round. Max Browne has begun his life after football.
I am not saying that everyone needs to trash DJ, talk about how awful he is and propose that he needs to hit the transfer portal. That garbage is, always has been and always will be, for the lunatic fringe that can’t look at things objectively. I am not even saying that we, the fans, need to stop making excuses for DJ and call him what he is: a bad quarterback, even though no one outside of Clemson Nation has any qualms about saying that. If fans don’t want to say it, then they shouldn’t say it. Like I said earlier, no one wants to be the bad guy, and a lot of fans feel that if they say something perceived as negative about a young amateur athlete, then they are the bad guy.
What I am saying is that it is important that the staff needs to recognize DJ is a bad quarterback. Maybe they do recognize that privately, and simply say the “right” things publicly. Behind the scenes, they need to start planning now how to address the situation before next season. If they miss on a player, then they miss. It happens, but it is important that they accept they missed and address it. Landing Cade Klubnik in the Class of 2022 is a good start, but not all freshmen are ready to play, even after enrolling early and participating in spring practice, and the moral of the cautionary tale of Max Browne is that not all highly rated prospects turn into highly rated college quarterbacks. If they truly don’t think Taisun or Helms are good enough to see the field in any significant way, even though DJ has performed so badly, then they also need to look at the transfer portal as the season closes, and again when spring depth charts shuffle and QB’s out there decide to look for better opportunities. The moral of the cautionary tale of Al Golden is that if you keep making excuses, fail to act to fix the problem and call it patience, it can set you way back. This season might just be a blip on the radar for Clemson’s program if they can get the offense turned around and achieving again in 2022. If the staff bets on DJ making a jump, and he does, and that bet gets them back into contention nationally, then more power to them. If they don’t have a sound backup plan in place, in case DJ doesn’t take that jump, then a small blip can become a trend, and recovery from that can take a lot longer. They don’t need to find the next #1 overall pick in the portal. They just need someone who can be an improvement over a performance that is 80th in passing yards, 97th in touchdowns, 54.9% completion percentage and a 107.4 QBR.
By the way, do you know what Max Browne’s rating was for the three games he started for USC before being benched?