Clemson QB Cade Klubnik dominates Orange Bowl conversation

Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik answers questions Tuesday at an Orange Bowl press conference in Dania Beach, Florida.

Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik answers questions Tuesday at an Orange Bowl press conference in Dania Beach, Florida.

During his true freshman season, one that he admitted had its shares of ups and downs, Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik took solace in a few things.

Staying confident.

Staying ready.

Trusting in God’s plan.

But even with those guiding principles, nothing could’ve prepared him for the past month: one that saw Klubnik, 19, go from taking zero snaps for Clemson in a home loss to South Carolina … to displacing DJ Uiagalelei as the starter and earning ACC Championship Game MVP honors against North Carolina … to preparing for his first career start in the Orange Bowl.

“No, I don’t think I saw this coming,” he said Tuesday, laughing. “But at the same time, I wasn’t in control. I just kind of kept my head down and kept working and trusted Coach (Dabo) Swinney and learned every day.”

The end result? Clemson’s future. Now.

After sticking with embattled starter Uiagalelei for the entirety of a Nov. 26 home loss to rival South Carolina — one that eliminated the two-loss Tigers from College Football Playoff contention — Swinney orchestrated a plan for Klubnik to come in on the third series of the Dec. 3 ACC championship game against UNC no matter how Uiagalelei was playing.

You know the rest: Uiagalelei looked rattled, completing 2 of 5 passes for 10 yards on two three-and-out drives, and Klubnik looked phenomenal, completing his first 10 passes (the 11th was a drop) to reinvigorate Clemson’s struggling offense against the Tar Heels.

Klubnik finished the game 20 of 24 passing for 279 yards and a touchdown, rushed seven times for 30 yards and another touchdown and, for good measure, caught a 19-yard pass on a trick play while leading scoring drives on four consecutive first-half possessions.

Clemson was down 7-0 when Klubnik replaced Uiagalelei. They finished the first half up 24-10 and cruised to a 39-10 victory. Klubnik was, deservedly, named the game’s MVP — the first true freshman to do that since the ACC started playing a conference championship game in 2005.

“It was a great night and a glimpse of our future and what it looks like at Clemson,” Swinney said postgame while naming Klubnik his Orange Bowl starter.

Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik smiles after being named game MVP after Clemson defeated North Carolina in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Jacob Kupferman) Jacob Kupferman AP

’Something about him’

If that was a glimpse, this week is a full-blown feature film.

With former starter Uiagalelei completely out of the picture, having entered the transfer portal two days after the ACC title game and committing to Oregon State over the weekend, it’s officially Klubnik’s show in Upstate South Carolina — and, for now, the Miami area, too.

Klubnik was a hot topic at Tuesday’s opening day of Orange Bowl media interviews, with Clemson teammates and Tennessee opponents alike weighing on the former five-star recruit from Texas who, in the words of UT defensive lineman Omari Thomas, just has “something about him (that) makes the offense go”

Another Volunteers defender, linebacker Aaron Beasley, didn’t blink in comparing Klubnik to former Texas A&M quarterbacking great Johnny Manziel — even though his unit’s had to revert to high school film to get a better read on Klubnik since he has played so little in 2022.

“Obviously, for those guys to have the confidence to get him in the game in the ACC championship, that just tells you the belief they have in him,” Tennessee defensive coordinator Tim Banks said. “And he did not disappoint.”

Klubnik had set Twitter ablaze in Clemson’s Sept. 5 season opener against Georgia Tech, making some excellent throws on a garbage-time scoring drive in relief of Uiagalelei, the entrenched junior starter. But that was backups on backups — not starters on starters.

When Klubnik did get those bigger opportunities, he didn’t always meet the moment. Sure, his 11-point second-half comeback against Syracuse on Oct. 22, which included a dazzling two-point conversion scramble throw, was notable — but he threw just four passes in that game as Clemson mostly leaned on its running game (and some timely penalties) to scrape out a win.

Failed chances to get things going against Furman and Louisiana Tech and Boston College and most notably Notre Dame, in which Klubnik threw a game-altering third-quarter interception deep in his own territory, left a bitter taste in the mouth of a player who thrives on competition and isn’t used to losing. Heck, he was 27-0 as a Texas high school starter.

“But if you want to be good, you’re going to have to forget what happened and move forward,” Clemson offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Brandon Streeter said. “And that’s what he did. He did an awesome job of just finding ways to get better and correct mistakes.”

Clemson quarterback Cade Klubnik runs with the ball in the first half during the Atlantic Coast Conference championship NCAA college football game against North Carolina on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. Jacob Kupferman AP

Making history

All this has led Klubnik to a unique position ahead of Friday’s Orange Bowl matchup between two one-time CFP contenders. According to Clemson’s games notes, he’s set to be the program’s first modern-era QB to make his first career start in a postseason game. That dates back to 1953, when Clemson switched from a single-wing offense to a more modern T-formation.

Now, having thrown all of 46 pass attempts as a college quarterback, Klubnik is already drawing comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners and convincing Clemson tight end Davis Allen that the Tigers can make a run at a national championship come 2023.

“We talk about the Clemson standard,” Allen said. “And he’s a great example of what that standard is. He’s done a great job of taking the reins and doing his part. … And he’s got a humble attitude about him — just a fun guy to be around. That makes it easy.”

As for Klubnik himself?

On the verge of his first career start, after a freshman year that neither he nor anyone else outside Nostradamus could’ve predicted, he’s keeping it simple.

“Just be the kid I’ve always been,” Klubnik said, “and just enjoy the game and don’t take it any differently. Just attack it every day like I was when I first started playing and don’t make it any bigger than it is. Just enjoy it every day.”

2022 Orange Bowl game, TV info

Who: No. 6 Tennessee (10-2) vs. No. 7 Clemson (11-2)

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.


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Chapel Fowler has covered Clemson football, among other topics, for The State since June 2022. He’s a Denver, N.C., native, a 2020 UNC-Chapel Hill alumnus and a pickup basketball enthusiast with previous stops at the Fayetteville (N.C.) Observer and Chatham (N.C.) News + Record. His work has been honored by the Associated Press Sports Editors, the North Carolina Press Association and the Associated College Press.

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