Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker and Clemson’s DJ Uiagalelei combined to play nearly 84% of their team’s snaps this season, but neither will be involved when the two teams face off in the Orange Bowl in Miami on December 30. Instead it’ll be Joe Milton III leading the Vols with Hooker sidelined by a knee injury and freshman Cade Klubnik taking charge of the Tigers with Uiagalelei in the NCAA transfer portal looking for a new team. A former five-star prospect, Klubnik will be coming off a strong performance in the ACC Championship Game against North Carolina, and Tennessee’s defense is readying for the new challenge he’ll present.
Ranked the No. 6 overall player and the no. 1 quarterback in the 247Sports Composite for the 2022 class, Klubnik will make the first start of his collegiate career in the Orange Bowl after his heroics sparked Clemson to yet another conference title. He lit up the Tar Heels to the tune of 279 yards on 20-of-24 passing with two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) as the Tigers ran out 39-10 winners in Charlotte. Uiagalelei, Clemson’s starter for every game this season and last, went into the portal when it opened on December 5, two days after the game.
Klubnik went into his breakout game with just 22 pass attempts in eight appearances, so there’s still a level of unknown for Tennessee’s defense as it prepares for a different quarterback in a game in which the Vols are looking for their 11th win of the season and a signature victory against one of college football’s elite programs.
“Just like most of their team, he’s really talented,” Vol’s defensive coordinator Tim Banks said after Tennessee’s practice on Tuesday morning. “Strong arm, strong release. He’s played some reps. Obviously not the lion’s share – the other kid did outside of the North Carolina game. He’s an athlete. We went back, watched his high school film. Tremendous athlete. Strong arm. He’s talented. I can see why he’s there and I can see why those guys are so high on him. We’re going to have our hands full, but we’ve obviously played a ton of talented quarterbacks within this league and he’s just the next guy up.”
A 6-foot-2, 195-pounder out of Westlake High School in Austin, Texas, Klubnik played late in Clemson’s blowout wins against Georgia Tech, Furman and Louisiana Tech in September and made similar late-game cameos against Boston College and Miami. He also came off the bench in the loss at Notre Dame and threw an interception. His most extensive playing time before the ACC Championship game came against Syracuse, when he sparked a fourth-quarter comeback.
Klubnik was just 2-of-4 passing for 19 yards with 15 rushing yards on six attempts in that game, but he guided Clemson on two touchdown drives. The first was a 15-play, 80-yard march, and the second he started with an 11-yard run and ended with a successful two-point conversion pass. The defense preserved a 27-21 win in what was a mid-October matchup of unbeatens.
“They have a solid O-line,” Tennessee defensive tackle Bryson Eason said. “The quarterback, I think he stands out. He’s a really good quarterback – a freshman, so I know he’s going to come out hungry and aggressive. But the O line, they seem good. They’re really just like a position block kind of team, but they’re going to bring it to us. They’re going to bring the fight to us and we’ve got to be prepared for that and ready for it and strike them, hit them in the mouth first before they can hit us.”
Uiagalelei’s midseason downturn was a big story of Clemson’s season. In the first seven games of the season, the veteran quarterback averaged nearly 238 passing yards per game and totaled 17 touchdowns (including five in a double-overtime win at Wake Forest) and just two interceptions. In the final five regular-season games, though, Uiagalelei was under 200 yards passing four times – the game against hapless Miami was the exception – and matched five touchdown passes with five interceptions, and Clemson’s reluctance to make a switch when he was 8- of-29 passing for 99 yards likely cost the Tigers the South Carolina game.
There is some uncertainty on Tennessee’s part about how Clemson might look with a full month to game-plan and prepare Klubnik to be the starter, though Banks didn’t notice any major changes when the freshman came off the bench this season.
“I will tell you, from that perspective, the sample size is small,” he said. “When he was in there, whether it was the North Carolina game or some of the other games he got in late, very similar, in particular in the throw game, what they asked him to do. But he’s connected to a bunch of deep balls. Like I said, they’ll run him. You just don’t know, but I think he’s capable of doing the same thing that the other kid did. It’s just a matter of if they decide to use him that way.”
Tennessee hasn’t played Clemson since 2003, but defensive back Wesley Walker will be the most familiar member of the program with the Tigers having faced them during the 2020 and 2021 seasons at ACC rival Georgia Tech. The first game was a 73-7 smashing led by Trevor Lawrence (404 yards and five touchdowns). Last season’s matchup went down to the wire as the Tigers escaped the Yellow Jackets in a 14-8 win.
This was Cleson’s first season with long-time quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter calling the plays after long-time coordinator Tony Elliot took the head coaching job at Virginia a year ago, but Walker expects Clemson to continue to do what it does on offense even with Klubnik at the controls.
“They’re a real disciplined team, a savvy team,” Walker said. “I’ve got a good idea on the way they run their plays. They have an identity that they have on offense, so I’m going to just really go back and watch our old games when I was at Georgia Tech and just remember what was going through my head as I was playing the game. I would say that I have a good feel for what they’re going to do, what they’re going to try to do.”