Starting for No. 1 Clemson? D.J. Uiagalelei's high school days prepared him

Eric Sondheimer
·4 min read
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) makes a pass during an NCAA college football game against Syracuse.
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei passes against Syracuse on Oct. 24. Uiagalelei is set to start for the Tigers on Saturday with Trevor Lawrence sidelined after a positive coronavirus test. (Ken Ruinard / Associated Press)

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence of Clemson is sidelined because of a positive COVID-19 test, so there might be a little skepticism about whether freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei can simply step in on Saturday against Boston College and direct the offense for the No. 1-ranked team in America.

Have no fear or any trepidation, says Uiagalelei’s high school coach at Bellflower St. John Bosco, Jason Negro.

“He thrives in these situations,” Negro said.

Uiagalelei's first start in high school varsity football came in 2017 against the No. 1 team in the nation, Santa Ana Mater Dei, when he was a sophomore. He passed for 257 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-21 defeat.

“He’s been in this situation before,” Negro said. “I expect him to play extremely well.”

Uiagalelei graduated from St. John Bosco in January so he could enroll early at Clemson and learn from Lawrence, a junior who is the likely No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft. Uiagalelei has been Lawrence’s primary backup during Clemson’s first six games. After missing a game against Georgia Tech because of a bruised shoulder, Uiagalelei returned to his backup role last week against Syracuse.

D.J. Uiagalelei passes during a high school playoff game.
D.J. Uiagalelei passes during a playoff game between Bellflower St. John Bosco and Westlake Village Oaks Christian in November 2018. (Michael Owen Baker / For The Times)

“I just want to be mentally prepared and do my job,” Uiagalelei told the Associated Press earlier this month. “Just to get live bullets and get playing time. It’s just super cool.”

Uiagelelei has enjoyed watching Lawrence up close.

“Just to see what makes him great,” Uiagalelei said. “Seeing everyday the way he works, the different sacrifices he makes on the football field, off the football field and how he organizes his time. There are a lot of things I take from him to try and be as great a player as he is.”

Uiagalelei received plenty of preparation in high school in dealing with big games, having to play in the Trinity League, considered the toughest in the nation. He went head to head for the last two years against Mater Dei quarterback Bryce Young, now a freshman at Alabama. There was always speculation about which one would get to start first in college, and Uiagalelei now gets the chance.

“It’s the reason guys come to Bosco,” Negro said. “He’s going to be prepared to lead the No. 1 team in the country. I fully expect him to execute the offense. He’s put in the time and work. And I wouldn’t expect anything less.”

Uiagalelei, 6 feet 4, has completed 12 of 19 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney has called him “a special young man.”

In December, Uiagalelei capped his high school career by leading St. John Bosco to a 49-28 victory over Concord De La Salle in the the CIF state championship Open Division bowl game. He completed 23 of 28 passes for 398 yards and four touchdowns and also ran for 64 yards and one score.

Clemson announced Thursday night that Lawrence was in isolation with mild symptoms. Besides missing the game Saturday, Lawrence is in jeopardy of missing a Nov. 7 game on the road against No. 4 Notre Dame because isolation must take place a minimum of 10 days, according to Atlantic Coast Conference guidelines.

Clemson is 6-0 overall and 5-0 in the ACC. The Fighting Irish, who play at Georgia Tech on Saturday, are 5-0 and 4-0 in the ACC.

Lawrence has thrown for 1,833 yards and 17 touchdowns with two interceptions this season. He is 31-1 as a starter in college, the loss coming in the national championship game to Louisiana State last season. Clemson won the national title the previous season with Lawrence as the starter.

Negro said he has been communicating with Uiagalelei via text messages.

“He’s in a good spot,” Negro said. “The culture at Clemson is similar to what we have in Bellflower. It’s the reason he chose to go to Clemson. I think he feels completely prepared because of the four years he spent with us.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.