2022 is Dabo Swinney’s fourteenth full season as the head coach of Clemson Football. He has seen a lot, and he is no stranger to quarterback competitions, including those that carry into the regular season.
He decided to go with true freshman Deshaun Watson during the game against Florida State in 2014. He decided to start true freshman Trevor Lawrence after the fourth game of the season, which led incumbent starter Kelly Bryant to leave the team and transfer.
Clemson had another true freshman quarterback coming in this season, Cade Klubnik. Much of the fanbase wanted Coach Swinney to put Klubnik in the starting lineup from the start, but he and his staff stuck with incumbent DJ Uiagaelei.
In a perfect world, a coach can just be a coach, but the reality is that coaches must be observant of public relations with the fanbase. The quarterback position had become a focal point of much of the fanbase’s angst during the 2021 season. Satisfying the entire fanbase on the starting quarterback has been mission impossible for Swinney, even while DJ has been putting together a good 2022 season through seven weeks.
Following a shaky start by DJ in the first half against Georgia Tech, combined with an excellent garbage time touchdown drive by Klubnik, the discussion about Clemson’s quarterback position had settled down. DJ has played well, and Klubnik has struggled a bit during his opportunities. That all came to an end this past Saturday when DJ struggled mightily, accounting for three turnovers.
One bad day in 2022 does not negate an overall positive season for Uiagalelei, despite the venom being hissed by much of the lunatic fringe of the Clemson fanbase, many of whom can be as ugly as any in all of college football. One of the lingering questions for DJ was whether he could be “up” for every game throughout a twelve-game regular season, which is a tall task for any quarterback.
One of the lingering questions for Swinney was whether he would be willing to make the tough decision to remove Uiagalelei from a game if he was playing badly and insert Klubnik, who had not performed well since the Georgia Tech game.
It wasn’t until Clemson’s third loss of the season (in Game #7) that Swinney benched DJ in favor of Taisun Phommachanh, and even then, it only lasted two series before DJ was back in the game. Many insiders simply believed that Phommachanh was never a viable option behind center and that strongly influenced Swinney’s hesitance to bench DJ.
So would the presence of Klubnik make Swinney more likely to make a switch?
Until Saturday, there hadn’t been a need to make such a decision. As someone who thought Swinney would go with Phommachanh on several occasions in 2021 only to be proven wrong, and as someone who has been down on Klubnik as a true freshman, even I didn’t think Swinney would make the change at quarterback until I saw this tweet:
When the offense went back out, Klubnik trotted out with them. From that point forward, Clemson scored seventeen points and had zero turnovers.
Swinney made the decision, despite the reality that Klubnik hadn’t done anything in the previous five games to suggest he was ready to play in crunch time. Despite the potential harm to DJ’s confidence to remove him from the game.
Swinney didn’t just make the decision – he made the right decision. Clemson is now 8-0 with a commanding lead in the ACC Atlantic and wins over three teams that are ranked in the AP Top 25 this week.
There is one more “despite”, however. Swinney decided to make the change even though it would create a storm of questions about who would be the starting quarterback moving forward if Klubnik were to lead Clemson to a fourth-quarter comeback over a ranked opponent.
That question came before he even got off the field Saturday, and Dabo’s response quickly neutralized it.
"“Sometimes, you know, Steph Curry goes 2 for 25. Your best player sometimes can have a bad day. He just got out of rhythm, made some bad plays. We just needed a change. We showed them we got that guy that can come in. DJ’s our quarterback. There ain’t no question about that. That’s our guy. That’s our leader. You can write that right now: DJ’s our guy. He’s got to play better, and he will, but how about Cade coming in and leading these guys?”"
I am someone who believes that Swinney handled the public relations of his program with masterful expertise during the first decade of his tenure as Clemson’s head coach. I am also someone who believes that he has made his fair share of public relations mistakes in the last four years.
Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney handled the quarterback position perfectly, both during and after Syracuse game
On Saturday, Swinney handled the public relations side of one of the biggest on-field coaching decisions of his career as well as he has handled any situation ever. He followed the correct decision of inserting Klubnik into the game by immediately making it clear that it wasn’t permanent, reiterating that Uiagalelei was rightly the leader of the team, and praising Klubnik for being ready to play when the team needed him.
Will that satisfy every member of Clemson’s fanbase? Not a chance. As I said, some people just won’t accept Uiagalelei under any circumstances. Clemson could win a national championship with DJ behind center, and those people will still complain. They would just say that Clemson was good enough that anyone could have played quarterback and that Swinney just hurt Klubnik’s long-term development by not playing him. Those people are ultimately unimportant.
What was important for Swinney and his team was the inevitable drama coming from putting Klubnik in the game, and he squashed it about as effectively as possible. Swinney nailed it and kept his team in a good position to continue to be successful.