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What a wild offseason this is shaping up to be in college football. Over 1,000 FBS players entered the transfer portal on December 5th when it opened. One of the most notable names seen on that list is now former Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei. The former five-star recruit improved on a rocky 2021 season, throwing for 2,521 yards while completing nearly 62 percent of his passes for 22 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. He added 545 yards and 7 scores on the ground as well. Despite the clear improvement from the year before, where he tossed more interceptions than touchdowns, he ended up being benched several times down the stretch for the Tigers.
Uiagalelei is far from the first big-time recruit to fall flat. Expectations were sky high for him following Trevor Lawrence’s tenure in Death Valley. Uiagalelei flashed potential and even dazzled at times for Clemson. His 2020 start in place of Lawrence and his incredible performance against Wake Forest this year come to mind.
However, there is no question this is Cade Klubnik’s team now and Uiagalelei will look to start fresh elsewhere. While fans are undoubtedly curious where he will land and its impact on the upcoming college football season, I am more interested in what this means for his NFL future.
It might be a bit hard to see exactly how a player who lost their starting job to a true freshman, despite the coaching staff giving him every chance to keep hold of his role, winds up being an NFL draft pick. I get it. If Uiagalelei were to enter the draft right now, it is hard to imagine he would be anything more than an undrafted free agent. Maybe a team would be willing to take a flier on him in the seventh round given his measurables and pedigree as a five-star recruit.
However, in the modern era of the transfer portal, it is becoming more common to see players rehab their draft stock after landing in a new home. Uiagalelei’s situation immediately makes me think of a pair of fourth-year quarterbacks who have an NFL draft decision to make in the coming weeks: Bo Nix and Spencer Rattler.
Both were highly recruited and seemed poised for superstardom at the NFL level. Unfortunately, Nix struggled with consistency at Auburn, ultimately deciding to leave for a change of scenery at Oregon. Rattler lost his starting job at Oklahoma to the uber-talented Caleb Williams, who won the Heisman trophy on Saturday, now playing for Lincoln Riley at USC. Entering this season, no draft analyst would reasonably tell you that Nix and Rattler had clear paths to the NFL. After both put together strong years at new programs, Nix more so than Rattler, the possibility of reaching the league is once again attainable. Rattler probably needs one more year at South Carolina to really solidify that he has what it takes, but Nix could legitimately be a Day 2 selection for a team looking to add depth at quarterback.
Let’s start with Nix. He had a career completion percentage of 59.4 at Auburn, averaged 6.9 yards per attempt and accumulated 39 touchdowns and 16 interceptions in three years as the starter. At Oregon, Nix completed 71.5 percent of his passes for a career high 3,388 passing yards to go along with 42 total touchdowns and just 6 interceptions. He showcased his immense growth as a passer and his talents as a rusher, racking up 504 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground. At this point, I think Nix will likely be one of the seven or eight passers selected in the 2023 draft, but we will have to see if he definitely leaves and, if so, how he fares in the pre draft process, which could include the Senior Bowl and the scouting combine.
For Rattler, he seemed poised to be the next great NFL quarterback after a stellar 2020 campaign. He threw for over 3,000 yards and amassed 28 touchdowns through the air with just 7 interceptions. Then he lost his job in 2021 to the aforementioned Williams and ended up at South Carolina. I will admit that I was ready to right off Rattler after a rocky start to his career in Columbia, but after leading the Gamecocks to seven wins in their final nine games, including impressive performances against Tennessee and Clemson to end the season, he is at least back on the radar. I think Rattler needs one more year to prove he can consistently play at a high level. He had some great games this year, but still tossed 11 interceptions, including four multi-interception outings.
I highlight both Rattler and Nix to point out that a change of scenery might be exactly what Uiagalelei needs. It worked great for Nix, who faced the same exact questions almost exactly one year ago. Landing at a school like UCLA, Purdue or hell, even Oregon, if Nix enters the draft.
The other example Nix set that Uiagalelei should follow would be working with a quarterback guru like Jordan Palmer. Nix spent the offseason working with Exos, putting in the work to improve his footwork, technique and accuracy. It paid major dividends this year and I think it is important that Uiagalelei does the same. Watching him play, he has a ton of arm talent, great size, impressive athleticism. However, his footwork is all over the place. His accuracy suffers big time as a result. Spending time with a quarterback specialist to fine tune those attributes will go a long way. He has already shown that he is willing to put in the offseason work as well, dropping 15 pounds heading into this season, which allowed him to move a lot better in the pocket and be more productive running the ball.
Uiagalelei’s future still very much seems like it will be in the NFL. He will have two years to prove he can progress as a passer and improve the technical side of his game. He is a 6’4″, 235-pound prospect with tons of experience playing in a Power 5 conference. He will undoubtedly land at another Power 5 school and be in position to start again.
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