After yet another woeful offensive performance in which starting QB D.J. Uiagalelei was benched and Clemson fell 27-17 to Pitt Saturday, Dabo Swinney said every job on the unit would be up for grabs in practice this week.
“Everything’s under evaluation at this point,” Swinney said, adding that he bore full responsibility for the team’s 4-3 start. “Everybody’s got to show up every day and we’ve got to take it one day at a time. We’ll practice and see who has the best practice and that’s the guy who’ll run out there first at every position.”
Uiagalelei, a preseason Heisman contender and former top recruit at his position, has struggled all season, but Swinney said after last week’s win over Syracuse, he’d hoped his QB had turned a corner. Instead, Uiagalelei threw two bad interceptions, including an ill-advised shovel pass that led to a Pitt touchdown on his final drive before being benched.
“I thought he made a couple bad plays in a row,” Swinney said of Uiagalelei. “I just felt like I needed to give [backup] Taisun [Phommachanh] a chance.”
Phommachanh did lead a scoring drive for Clemson, but Pitt’s big lead convinced Swinney to return to Uiagalelei late, relying on the latter’s superior arm talent. Uiagalelei led one final TD drive that Swinney said showed a good response to the benching, but it still wasn’t enough to ward off the Tigers’ third loss of the season.
Thus far, Clemson has played six FBS opponents and has not scored more than 19 points in regulation against any of them.
After the game, Uiagalelei said he believed he’d done enough to warrant another start, but he said he didn’t want to be handed the job without merit.
“You’ve got to go earn it every week,” Uiagalelei said. “That’s my mindset since I was little. If it wasn’t me next week, I’ll be right here and I’ll be happy to see my brother Taisun.”
Swinney offered strong support for offensive coordinator Tony Elliott, who has been at the center of fan backlash to the offensive struggles. Swinney said Elliott called a good game Saturday but was let down by bad throws from Uiagalelei and a series of disastrous drops from a beleaguered receiving corps. Clemson was without three of its top receivers Saturday, including Joseph Ngata, who was in COVID-19 protocols.
Asked if he might consider making changes to the coaching staff, Swinney was emphatic: “Absolutely not. We have a great staff that I believe in whole-heartedly.”
Adding to Clemson’s pain, three more offensive contributors appear to be lost for the year. Receiver Frank Ladson had surgery last week and will miss the remainder of the season. Tight end Braden Galloway may also be out for the rest of the year, Swinney said. And Clemson’s top offensive lineman, Matt Bockhorst, suffered what Swinney said appeared to be a season-ending ACL injury against Pitt. Swinney said Clemson is currently without 17 scholarship players due to injury.
“It’s the craziest thing I’ve seen in college football,” Swinney said.
Still, Swinney attempted to remain upbeat, shrugging off an outpouring of criticism from a frustrated fan base.
“If I start running this program by listening to be outside, I’d probably run out pretty quick,” Swinney said. “I think we’ve been a model of consistency — on and off the field. Hopefully we’ve earned a little bit of trust. They have every right to be disappointed. I’m disappointed. Everybody’s disappointed. I’m sick to my stomach. But I know what we’re made of, and we’ll grow through it and get back to winning some ball games.”