- A cannon-armed QB in an edge rusher's body, DJ Uiagalelei's college decision is only the next step in his fascinating football journey.
DJ Uiagalelei cannot drive a car, at least not legally. He doesn’t have a driver’s license and has no immediate plan to get one. When he’s not playing baseball or football, DJ battles his little brother Matayo and cousins in Fortnite. He and his brother are sneakerheads, with at least 80 pairs of shoes between them, all either size 13 or 14. DJ’s favorite food is chicken nuggets—the frozen kind—and DJ’s size, 6'4", 240 pounds, he inherits from his father’s Samoan roots. DJ’s mom has carried eight children, six of them as a surrogate mother, and DJ’s dad—Big Dave, they call him—is a bodyguard who’s worked security for celebrities like Chris Brown, Rihanna and DJ Khaled.
There is something else you should know about DJ: He’s the No. 1-ranked quarterback in the 2020 class and verbally committed to Clemson on Sunday. “Sometimes we will be driving,” says DJ’s mother, Tausha, “and he’ll say things like, ‘It’s really happening, Mom.’” It seems like just yesterday that Big Dave learned about his 10-year-old son’s arm strength while the two threw rocks into a lake near their home. A few years later, DJ was winning a throwing competition against 2018 five-star Justin Fields by tossing a football beyond the boundaries of the competition. “It hit the goal post,” says Jason Negro, his coach at St. John Bosco Preparatory School. Negro has more stories about Uiagalelei’s immense arm strength. Sometimes, when frustrated with his kickers during practice, Negro has DJ throw kickoffs.
Uiagalelei’s arm strength spans sports. He’s got a screaming 95 mph fastball that could land him in the first round of the MLB draft. Greg Biggins, a longtime recruiting reporter on the West Coast who now works for 247Sports, calls his arm “generational” and the strongest he’s seen from a high school player since JaMarcus Russell. His arm is so powerful it overshadows the other skills that have produced this stat line as a two-year starter: 68% completion mark, more than 6,000 yards passing, 77 touchdowns and just nine interceptions. Uiagalelei is incredibly accurate and athletic out of the pocket for his size. Biggins compares him to Ben Roethlisberger with Cam Newton athleticism. On the run, “He’s scary,” Biggins says. Highlight videos show a player the size of some high school tackle throwing deep touchdowns and bowling through defenders on QB keepers.
“I had heard about him in the seventh grade,” Biggins says. “There was talk. ‘No way he’s going to be able to stay at quarterback. He’s going to put on weight and play offensive line!’”
Uiagalelei isn’t the first star quarterback with options to play both football and baseball, and he’s not the first teenage Polynesian quarterback with soaring college expectations. But have you ever heard of a five-star Samoan quarterback and blue-chip right-handed pitcher who’s the size of a defensive end? “He’s a unique individual,” says Negro, a head coach for 17 years in the cradle of quarterbacks that is the Los Angeles metro area. “He breaks the mold.” Uiagalelei is savvy for a kid who turned 18 two weeks ago, so savvy that he’s created a patented line for any question regarding his sports preference. He likes football during football season, he says, and he likes baseball during baseball season. All of the 30 schools that offered him a football scholarship agreed to allow him to play baseball, including Clemson.
His arrival at Clemson would be well timed. He doesn’t mind sitting a year behind Trevor Lawrence, who’d be eligible for the 2021 draft as a junior.It’s another stunning recruiting catch for Clemson—a fourth quarterback signee ranked in the top four at the position in four years. This one might be the best, but it’s certainly the biggest.
“Big Dave” Uiagalelei is ... big. “He’s, like, 6'4", 400 pounds,” DJ says. “Everybody sees him and is like, ‘Hey, Big Dave! Big Dave!” Dave is a first generation American, his mother and father moved from the Samoan Islands to Hawaii and then to the mainland in 1985 when Dave was 12. Dave and his three big-bodied brothers all played football at Mt. San Antonio College, a junior college about 25 miles inland of Los Angeles. Mt. SAC, as it’s known locally, is a special place for DJ. Not only did his father and uncle play there, but two of his uncles coached on the staff, and he grew up attending games with a sideline pass. While other Southern California kids dreamed of being a Trojan or Bruin, DJ dreamed of being a Mountie. The school means enough to him that his publicized list of finalists is a trio: Oregon, Clemson and … Mt. San Antonio College. Everyone realizes the Mounties’ inclusion is for sentimental purposes only. “He knows he can’t just settle for junior college,” Tausha says.
That’s the route her husband took. There are Mt. SAC legends about Big Dave, a mauler of a left tackle who helped lead the Mounties to the 1997 junior college national championship. Dad has shown son film of his playing days, and DJ says Big Dave could have played in the pros. “He just didn’t like to work out,” DJ says. “He says he was one of those people, lazy and didn’t like to work. He had a tryout with the Eagles as a center. He told them, ‘I’m a left tackle,’ and didn’t go.’” If Big Dave has taught his son and namesake (DJ stands for David John) anything, it is to take a different path: work, focus, grind. But there are moments when DJ takes a turn as the voice of reason, like the drive back from a game during DJ’s sophomore season. Despite being the better player, DJ was stuck behind a senior starter who had led St. John Bosco to a state title the year before. “Sometimes my son is more of an adult than me,” Big Dave admits. “He says in the car, ‘Dad, don’t say anything—it’s going to make it harder for me.’ I sit there and say, ‘Damn, my kid is smarter than me.’”
That sophomore season ended fine for Big Dave’s son. Coaches inserted DJ in the fifth game of the season, with the Braves down by 10 points in the middle of the fourth quarter. He marched them to consecutive touchdown drives for the victory, ultimately replacing the team’s starter Re-al Mitchell—but not without some awkwardness. The Netflix reality show QB1 had embedded with Mitchell during that season and wanted to shift focus from Mitchell (who is now a quarterback at Iowa State) to Uiagalelei, who was just 16, but coaches were against it. “The family and DJ handled that really well,” Negro says. “They were incredible.”
Those who know Uiagalelei well are not surprised by his humble attitude in such a sticky situation. He’s serious and intense, mature beyond his years. Matayo calls his brother boring, but that’s only because he’s too adult-like. The two brothers, four years apart, are vastly different despite being nearly the same size. At 14, Matayo already has major conference scholarship offers and is poised to play defensive end/tight end at St. John Bosco. He is 6'3", 230 pounds. DJ, Big Dave and Matayo combine to weigh about 900 pounds and average around 6'4". Just imagine those three walking into a restaurant with their mother. “People stop and stare,” Tausha says.
For the family, DJ’s announcement day on Sunday is a long, deep sigh of relief, an end to the taxing recruiting process for their eldest son. DJ is committing on, of all days, his mother’s birthday. “He’s a momma’s boy,” Big Dave chuckles. He was a grandma’s boy, too. Judi Bryson, Tausha’s mother, lived with the family for years while fighting multiple sclerosis. DJ called her Mammee. She passed two years ago. On the field after a score, DJ often pats his chest and points toward the heaves, gestures meant for two recipients: God and Mammee. He’s following in the footsteps of his idols in the game: fellow Polynesians and former Oregon quarterbacks Marcus Mariota and Jeremiah Masoli, as well as former USC running back Reggie Bush, the reason DJ wears No. 5. He once told a USC recruiter that if the school would hire Bush as its head coach, he’d commit. “He’d be great in today’s game,” DJ says of Bush and the shotgun-based spread offense infiltrating the NFL. “He’d thrive.”
Will DJ? Maybe one day. For now, his focus is on spring football practice, and when it’s not, he’ll battle his brother in Fortnite, eat chicken nuggets and be a kid who just so happens to be the top-rated prep player at his position. “It’s cool. I don’t think too much about it. I’m just a regular kid trying to play football,” he says, “but some days you realize … ‘Oh wow. I’m the No. 1 quarterback.’”