Quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei already has fans at Clemson. When he and his family visited this past season, the coaches did their best to keep the Class of 2020’s No. 2 quarterback on schedule, weaving him through the crowds of eager fans trying to get pictures and autographs.
As folks flocked around the family, Uiagalelei’s father, Dave, had instinct kick in as he gently persuaded everyone to step aside. Big Dave, as he is affectionately known, is a 6-foot-4, 395-pound human who, in a past life, ran security measures for some of Hollywood’s most famous celebrities.
“It was crazy to me, because I did this for Chris Brown, Rihanna, and now I’m doing it for my son,” Big Dave said. “I’ve been in that situation a million times, and I know how to move people through crowds without being rude. My wife laughs, but I call it verbal judo: You don’t have to be mean; you can be respectful and still get your client through.”
This time, his client was his son, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound pocket passer with a big arm.
And when, months later, D.J. Uiagalelei committed to Clemson, it was all but certain that the top-ranked pocket-passing quarterback and the No. 50 recruit overall cemented the opportunity to become as big of a star as some of the celebrities his father used to protect.
But Uiagalelei doesn’t consider himself anything out of the ordinary — and quite frankly prefers to stay out of the spotlight.
There is no bigger sign of that than the fact that Uiagalelei has his father and his uncle Mau (another of his unwanted hype men) blocked on Twitter.
“I love tweeting about my son and he hates it,” Big Dave said with a belly laugh. “My son hates it.”
Big Dave admits that he likes to talk back to people who criticize his son; he also comments on threads about what kind of talent D.J. really is and about any negative talk he sees. It’s all done with love, of course, but D.J. wants neither the attention nor the focus on him.
“I’m like, ‘Dad, how many times are you going to post about me?'” Uiagalelei said. “It’s all fun and games, but I don’t want to see what they have to say, so I just blocked them. Not to block them so they don’t see me — it’s so I don’t see them.”
Uiagalelei’s mother, Tausha, also advocates that humility, reminding her son that he needs to take the trash out, walk the dog and stop playing so much Fortnite.
“He might have a target on his back, and my husband doesn’t help with all his postings, but [D.J.] is still the same,” she said. “He knows he has to be the same at home, at school, when the cameras are on or off. Every now and then, his brother will tease him or his friends will say, ‘Oh, Five-Star’s here,’ and he’ll smile, but it’s not what he wants to be called or to be known for.”
The spotlight has found Uiagalelei, though. And in more ways than one.
Uiagalelei the quarterback is also a baseball prospect, and he had entertained the thought of opting for the MLB draft as a pitcher who sports a 95-mph fastball.
“[The Uiagalelei family] met with some agents for baseball and talked about potentially being a first-round pick. Then all the stuff that happened with Kyler Murray — it couldn’t have happened at a better time, because it showed the leverage he can have,” said Terry Bullock, Uiagalelei’s high school linebackers coach and recruiting assistant.
“So, coming out of high school, the biggest contract he would be looking at would be $2 [million] to $5 million — which is a lot. But if he goes to college and plays football and baseball, it’s that next contract that’s the big one,” Bullock added. “If you sign out of high school, you’re limited; but after that, he could be up for more. He’s being projected first or second round, but a lot of the agents were telling him to go to college and play both.”
But Uiagalelei and his family weighed all their options and felt Clemson would give him the best opportunity to accomplish his goals.
“I want to play with the best players, I want to win a national championship and I want to play on the biggest stage against the best people,” Uiagalelei said. “That’s my thing is I want to play with the best people. Play against the best and be the best, so why not go to Clemson where they’re on the biggest stage every game.”
His decision to choose Clemson makes sense, but there’s one glaring obstacle: He has a generational quarterback ahead of him on the roster in Trevor Lawrence, who will be starting his third season as Uiagalelei arrives.
Uiagalelei likely will have to sit behind Lawrence and wait his turn, regardless of when Lawrence enters the NFL draft. In an age of unprecedented quarterback transferring — all to see the field right away — Uiagalelei said he is perfectly comfortable waiting his turn and learning from Lawrence, rather than expecting a chance to play the second he hits campus.
Part of his thinking comes from experience. Uiagalelei had a choice of high schools but chose to attend St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California. Again ahead of him on the roster was a star: Re-al Mitchell, a junior quarterback who was coming off a state championship season.
“D.J. didn’t see any playing time on varsity that year and I was kind of frustrated, so I said I was going to talk to his coach,” Big Dave said. “D.J. jumped up so quick and said, ‘Dad, what for? This is what all freshman have to go through.’ He said all that was going to do was cause controversy and make his job harder.
“This is D.J. talking to me and that’s what I’m supposed to be saying to him. In my head, I’m like, ‘Damn, this kid is so freaking smart.'”
Uiagalelei had played football in only his third-, fifth- and seventh-grade years, so he knew he still had a lot to learn. He sat that first year in high school, playing only in garbage time, and waited. He finally got his opportunity as a sophomore when Mitchell started to struggle during the season.
“We were playing St. John’s in Maryland, fourth quarter, we were down 17-7 and Re-al throws back-to-back interceptions, so they bench him and put D.J. in,” Bullock said. “First dive, 80 yards, five passes and we score. The defense gets the ball back, we go another 70 yards and get in the end zone for a touchdown and we win with D.J. in at quarterback.”
All of it paving the way for Uiagalelei today — and building his patience and understanding. So, while the Tigers have told him he’ll likely have to wait his turn to start again at Clemson, he is approaching it like he did before: a chance to grow and learn from a program that has shown it can develop its players.
“Learning is not a bad thing for me,” Uiagalelei said. “I want to be out there and compete, but if that means I have to sit behind a leader, I’m fine with that.”
He should be fine transitioning into Clemson’s offense, as well, as his high school team runs a similar offense. He is seeing the blueprint of what he could look like in this offense with Lawrence and should be able to transition smoothly.
“The offenses are mirror images, just different terminology,” Bullock said. “I’ve been in meetings with D.J. and [co-offensive coordinator] Tony Elliott and the quarterback coach, Brandon Streeter, and gone over film and just seeing the comparisons, and it’s very similar.”
While Uiagalelei tries to avoid any unnecessary attention and stay a normal kid, he knows — way in the back of his mind — that the spotlight is a necessary evil.
“I want to make it to the NFL and help support my family,” Uiagalelei said. “I just want to give everything back 100 times what they’ve done for me and continue to do what God has planned for me. Whether that’s to play in the NFL, play in the MLB or if I was the janitor in the local high school, whatever he has planned for me, I know that’s what my parents want.”