‘Natural born leader’: Clemson calls on Uiagalelei vs Irish

The gold chains DJ Uiagalelei wears around his neck and rubber bands around his wrist tell a lot about Clemson’s freshman quarterback.

The No. 5 pendant hanging down to his chest refers to his nickname, Big Cinco, which goes back to the jersey number he wears in honor of his favorite player growing up: Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush from USC.

The T is for Tausha, his mother. Uiagalelei says he takes after his reserved mom more than his boisterous dad, David.

The diamond-studded cross is a symbol of his deep Christian faith. The rubber bracelets his young cousin gave to him are inscribed with Bible verses.

The message on one of those bracelets was especially prescient, considering the events of the last week: “This one is Jeremiah 33:3,” he said. “It says, ‘Call on me and I will answer to you and show you great and mighty things.’”

With Trevor Lawrence sidelined by COVID-19, Uiagalelei has been called on by Clemson sooner than anyone would have expected. He proved last week in his first college start he is capable of showing great and mighty things on a football field.

The next test for Uiiagalelei comes on one of college football’s grandest stages and under the brightest of spotlights.

No. 1 Clemson (7-0) faces No. 4 Notre Dame (6-0) on Saturday night in South Bend, Indiana, in a game with ACC title and playoff implications. Lawrence is expected to be with the team, but he has already been ruled out of the game.

Uiagalelei insists he will be unfazed by the moment and after seeing him lead the Tigers back from an 18-point deficit against Boston College it is hard not to believe him.

“He texted me on Saturday morning and asked me if I had slept OK?” Tausha Uiagalelei told AP. Tausha said she turned the question around on DJ, who said “of course.”

“He always says, ‘Don’t ever ask me if I’m nervous. I don’t want to be asked that. If you keep asking me that I’m going to wonder if I should be nervous,'” said Tausha, who is making the trip to Notre Dame with DJ’s younger brother, Mateo, this weekend.

It was just two seasons ago Notre Dame was eliminated from the College Football Playoff by Clemson and then-freshman phenom Lawrence.

Now another Clemson freshman quarterback stands in the way of the Fighting Irish’s first victory against a top-five opponent in 17 years. Just like Lawrence, this is no ordinary freshman.

“These kids see a lot now and are well prepared. DJ will be well prepared for a number of things that we’ll show him,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “The most important thing is to make sure that he’s not comfortable back there.”

Uiagalelei had to learn to be comfortable as the center of attention at a young age. Growing up in Southern California’s Inland Empire, his size and athletic prowess made him recognizable in the community before he reached middle school.

Tausha Uiagalelei recalled being out shopping with DJ when he was fourth-grader and noticing younger boys off the sidee, whispering “That’s DJ, That’s DJ.” She started talking with DJ about dealing with the attention and embracing it with humility.

“This is what God has put upon you,” she would tell DJ. “You’re a natural-born leader.”

Uiagalelei played at St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California, one of the premier high school football programs in the country. When the scholarship offers first started coming in, he was not on Clemson’s radar but the ascending Tigers were on his. He saw the success the program was having with quarterbacks Tajh Boyd and Deshaun Watson in an offense similar to the one he ran at Bosco with offensive coordinator Chad Johnson, now the head coach at Mission Viejo.

Uiagalelei reached out to Clemson coaches and eventually they made the cross-country trip to check him out. They liked what they saw.

When Uiagalelei made the trip east to visit Alabama, Georgia and Clemson, he felt a unique connection with the culture of Dabo Swinney’s program.

Tausha said DJ told her: “‘God’s here Mom. Christ is here. I can’t even explain it. It’s different than anything else.’”

That Lawrence, the best quarterback in college football, was also at Clemson did not deter DJ Uiagalelei.

“I wasn’t looking at whoever the starting quarterback was or whatever the depth chart looked like,” Uiagalelei said.

Clemson teammates say Uiagalelei’s poise is as apparent as the 6-foot-4, 250-pounder’s powerful arm and athleticism.

“It’s crazy to see someone come in, only be here since January, and just come in and takeover in a game like Saturday when essentially our season’s on the line,” senior receiver Cornell Powell said. “He just never flinched. Never budged. He was prepared for the moment.”

STATEMENT GAME?

After three straight double-digit victory seasons, the Irish tend to downplay the idea of signature wins. But Notre Dame’s success has come with a ceiling. The Irish are 0-5 against top-five opponents under Kelly and are on an 11-game losing streak versus those teams dating back to the 2003 season.

So is the Clemson game a referendum on the state of the program?

“We’re 29-3 in our last 32 games,” Kelly said. “We’ve won 22 consecutive games at home. We have won 12 in a row. I don’t know. You guys decide.”

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Follow Ralph D. Russo at https://twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP and listen at https://westwoodonepodcasts.com/pods/ap-top-25-college-football-podcast/

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More AP college football: https://apnews.com/Collegefootball and https://twitter.com/AP_Top25

Copyright © 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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