CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) — Cade Klubnik looked poised and confident in his new role as the No. 1 quarterback at Clemson. The only difference is he didn't have experienced teammate DJ Uiagalelei alongside to help guide him.
Klubnik took control of the offense — for good this time, after Uiagalelei entered the NCAA transfer portal last week — as the 10th-ranked Tigers continued postseason preparations for their Orange Bowl game against No. 6 Tennessee on Dec. 30.
The game marks Klubnik's first college start after a season mostly on the sidelines behind Uiagalelei, Clemson's often criticized two-year starter.
Klubnik, who came on in relief in a 39-10 win over North Carolina in the ACC Championship game, has had “a front-row seat to the good and the bad of what it's like to play quarterback at this level,” Tigers coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday.
Klubnik was among the country's top quarterback prospects when he signed at Clemson. Many supporters were looking to replace Uiagalelei, who fought through injuries and poor play as the Tigers' streak of six consecutive ACC titles and College Football Playoff appearances ended with a 10-3 season in 2021.
But it was Uiagalelei, a junior, who led Clemson to a 7-0 start and a projected playoff spot.
That's when things went off the rails for the Tigers' offense. Klubnik came off the bench for an ineffective Uiagalelei to spark a 27-21 victory over then-ranked Syracuse on Oct. 22.
Klubnik was called on again in relief two weeks later in a 35-14 loss at Notre Dame. Then, when Uiagalelei started with two three-and-out series against the Tar Heels with a league title at stake, Swinney put in Klubnik and never looked back.
Klubnik was ready for the moment, finishing 20 of 24 passing for 279 yards and a touchdown. He also ran for a touchdown and was named the game's MVP. Uiagalelei made his departure official two days later.
Klubnik said he was coached all year to prepare as if he were starting and it paid off in helping the Tigers won their seventh ACC crown in eight seasons.
“I've learned so much this year,” he said. “I'm just super thankful for me just kind of getting to sit back and watch.”
Those days are finished for Klubnik, who took the first series in each drill at Clemson's practice. After a sharp pass to tailback Will Shipley, offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter shouted, “Good job. That's the way.”
The Tigers seem to have made peace with the change at quarterback — and with Uiagalelei's departure. Swinney said the team would not have won the ACC title without Uiagalelei.
“Of course, I miss ‘Big Cinco,'” said defensive tackle Tyler Davis, referring to Uiagalelei's nickname and uniform number. “Great teammate, one of the best teammates I have had. But it's his decision, he's got to do what's best for him.”
Uiagalelei won't be the only Clemson regular missing against Tennessee. Tigers starting defensive end Myles Murphy, a projected high first-round NFL draft pick, has opted out of the Orange Bowl to start training for the pros.
Starting linebacker Trenton Simpson, second on the team with 77 tackles, re-injured his ankle in the ACC title game and won't be ready to play, Swinney said.
The coach has had to sit more experienced, well-liked quarterbacks in the past such as starter Cole Stoudt in 2014 for freshman Deshaun Watson and Kelly Bryant during Trevor Lawrence's first year in 2018. Swinney anticipates a smooth transition going forward.
“These guys are all competitors, they all understand the game,” Swinney said of his players. “And Cade's an easy guy, it's not like he's some hard personality. He's an easy guy to get to like.”
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