Touted recruit Cade Klubnik takes first snaps for Clemson Tigers as potential QB battle looms with slimmed-down D.J. Uiagalelei

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Highly touted quarterback Cade Klubnik, the No. 28 recruit in the country in 2022, took his first official snaps for Clemson on Wednesday, as the Tigers opened spring practice with a potential quarterback battle looming. But head coach Dabo Swinney said incumbent D.J. Uiagalelei is starting spring in far better shape — mentally and physically — than how he ended a tumultuous 2021 campaign.

“He’d be the first one to tell you he has a lot he needs to improve on but he never made excuses, never pointed fingers,” Swinney said of Uiagalelei, who was predicted to be a likely Heisman Trophy candidate before the season but finished with just nine touchdown passes. “What he went through last year accelerated all the other stuff he needed to learn — mental toughness, grit, thick skin, the will to win. I think he’s going to have a great year.”

Uiagalelei checked in at 240 pounds — shedding more than 15 pounds since the end of Clemson’s 2021 season in December. Swinney said the staff spoke with Uiagalelei — nicknamed “Big Cinco” as a nod to his heft and his uniform number — about the need to trim some weight and improve his fitness.

“He’s never going to be little — he’s just a big man,” Swinney said. “But he knew he could do a better job. He’s a really good athlete, and him working like he’s worked is going to pay dividends.”

Still, the presence of Klubnik, the Texas player of the year last season, figures to provide serious intrigue throughout the spring.

Clemson opened spring practice in 2014 without an incumbent QB, but all eyes were on true freshman Deshaun Watson, who eventually won the job over senior Cole Stoudt in the fourth game of the season. In 2018, it was five-star freshman Trevor Lawrence who upended the Tigers’ depth chart in spring ball, eventually beating out senior Kelly Bryant for the starting job.

Whether Klubnik can do the same remains a question, but Swinney drew comparisons to the situations with Watson and Lawrence in discussing how his newest freshman phenom will be evaluated.

“The expectation is he comes in here and is the guy we recruited,” Swinney said. “We recruited a leader, a guy who’s a detailed preparer and takes the field with great preparation, learns from his mistakes and gets better as he goes. … Show up and we’ll see where he is. Good news is he’s going to get a lot of reps.”

Both quarterbacks got reps Wednesday, with Uiagalelei still wearing a knee brace following an injury he suffered midseason.

The injury factor, Swinney said, might be the key to either QB’s success.

In 2021, Clemson entered its bowl game down more than 30 players, including massive attrition at receiver.

“I’ve never had a young QB that didn’t make mistakes,” Swinney said of Uiagalelei’s pitfalls in 2021. “The difference was D.J.’s were magnified. We weren’t near as good around him as with [Watson and Lawrence.]”

Still, Clemson will be without a host of projected starters for the spring.

Receivers E.J. Williams and Will Taylor are unlikely to practice. Starting tailback Will Shipley and his top backup, Kobe Pace, are also both out, along with tight end Davis Allen. Clemson also has a huge void at center, where Hunter Rayburn, who started six games in 2021, announced his retirement because of a neck injury, and Mason Trotter, who started seven games, is unlikely to see action this year due to personal issues, Swinney said.

As a result, Swinney said Clemson is actively looking to add a transfer on the O-line, something the Tigers have rarely done in the past. While Clemson did snag QB Hunter Johnson — a former Tiger who had transferred to Northwestern three years ago — Swinney’s aim on the O-line is to add an instant impact player, he said.

“It’s got to be the right fit, who fits us, fits our program and our locker room,” Swinney said. “And not just a guy, but somebody that’s an all-conference, multiyear starter type of guy that’s a veteran.”

In the interim, Swinney said, Will Putnam will work at center after playing last year at guard.

In addition to the offensive starters out for the spring, Swinney said defensive tackles Bryan Bresee and Tre Williams, safeties Lannden Zanders and Tyler Venables, cornerback Malcolm Greene and linebacker Sergio Allen also are expected to miss some or all of practice.

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