CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei settled in behind the microphone at the ACC Media Days like a veteran, smiling, sharply dressed and politely taking on every question.
“I get way more nervous doing this than playing football,” Uiagalelei confessed. “I try to treat it like I’m having fun in a conversation.”
Uiagalelei seemed to enjoy the press conference, but he made it clear he was also very confident and serious when it came to his football goals.
“My goal is to go 15-0 and win a national championship,” Uiagelelei said. “I want to hit the ground running and start off fast.”
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It starts for Clemson with one of college football’s biggest games of the year, at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 4 against Georgia, with Uiagalelei in the middle of many of the game’s storylines.
Facing old rival
The Tigers’ starting quarterback for the 2021 season took all questions in stride, even when talk turned to his two defeats to high school rival JT Daniels.
“That was a long time ago, like four years ago, that was my first start, they were the no. 1 team in the nation,” Uiagalelei said of the first of two 2017 meetings between high school rivals Mater Dei and St. John’s Bosco.
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Uiagalelei, who led St. John’s Bosco to the national championship in 2019 — knocking off a Mater Dei team led by current Alabama QB Bryce Young — says when Georgia and Clemson meet on Sept. 4, it won’t be personal.
“I don’t think so, not unfinished business,’ Uiagalelei said, asked if he was excited about playing UGA to get payback on Daniels.
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“I was more excited about the quality of opponent we were playing in Georgia. They are going to be a Top 5 team or Top 4 team.
“I want to play against great teams, that’s why you play college football, and it’s why you play at Clemson.”
Uiagalelei has, however, seen enough of his former rival to know Daniels will provide stiff competition.
“He’s a great leader makes great decisions on the field, instincts,” Uiagalelei said. “He was a great runner back in high school, he could really spin the ball and he was really good at extending the plays.
“He was always really smart, great understanding what defenses were trying to do, and he could pick people apart back in high school.”
Uiagalelei has also done his homework on the Georgia defense, providing a quick scouting report when prompted.
“I think they’re a very good defense, very fast, very athletic and they have very big D-tackles,” the 6-foot-5, 250-pound Uiagalelei said. “I think that overall, they’re a great defense, and they have a really good defensive coordinator.”
Uiagalelei is one of a handful of prominent high school quarterbacks from Southern California who have found their way to the South, along with Daniels, Young, and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral.
When asked why, Uiagalelei cited the college football passion in the region.
“The way fans love football down here was totally insane,” Uiagalelei said. “I’m not knocking back home, but the way fans treat football here is insane.
“When I went to my first Clemson game, I saw people tailgating from 20 minutes away on the road, and Clemson was all shut down,” he said. “We have 85,000 fans in the stadium and 50,000 tailgating, and there is like 10,000 people in the city.
“I’d never seen anything like that in my life.”
Uiagalelei will be making his third career start when he faces off with Georgia in Charlotte in front of what’s expected to be a 50-50 distribution of fans.
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It will be Uiagalelei versus Daniels, one more time.
“We both want to win the game,” Uiagalelei said. “And I know it’s going to be a really good game.”
Notre Dame defensive linemen Kurt Hinish (41) and Jayson Ademilola (57) pressure Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei (5) in the third quarter at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana, on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. Notre Dame won, 47-40, in double overtime. (Matt Cashore/Pool/Getty Images/TNS)