Canzano: DJ Uiagalelei faces reboot at Oregon State
QB says he wants to "do my thing, play free, have fun."
Oregon State has been very careful when it comes to the unveiling of DJ Uiagalelei.
The transfer quarterback announced he was leaving Clemson for Corvallis last December. He enrolled in courses at OSU, found an apartment a couple of miles from campus, and got to work learning the playbook.
Uiagalelei was not, however, turned into the face of the franchise.
Oregon State put a moratorium on media interviews. Coach Jonathan Smith told me he preferred to let Uiagalelei meet his teammates before he met the public. The quarterback talked briefly to a couple of print reporters for the first time after a spring football practice in mid-March. And it wasn’t until Thursday — four months after he chose OSU — that Uiagalelei spoke in his first 1-on-1 public interview.
It was a wise play by Smith to go low-key with the introduction. It took some pressure off a player who struggled at times under the spotlight at Clemson. Also, it fosters the notion that program culture — not a star player — are what fuels OSU.
“Every once in awhile,” Smith joked to me, “I do something smart.”
So who is DJ Uiagalelei? What is he about? And will Smith’s football program ride the QB’s talent to the Pac-12 Conference title game?
Uiagalelei — pronounced “oo-ee-ANH-gah-leh-lay” — talked with me on Thursday in a wide-ranging and exclusive interview. We discussed his favorite classes, what he’s learned from his mother, and what he’s binge-watching on television these days. But in our 25-minute talk — on and off air — I was mostly struck by how mature and comfortable the new QB sounds.
“I wanted to go somewhere, get a reset and get a fresh start,” Uiagalelei, 21, said. “It’s been good to get a restart and come out here and redefine myself. For me, just come in here, do my thing, play free, have fun.”
Oregon State’s offense borrows concepts from a number of NFL teams. Two-way OSU star Jack Colletto told me last season that he was given film of 49ers tight end George Kittle last season. Uiagalelei said he regularly receives video clips showing formations, motion and plays run by the 49ers, Packers, Vikings and Rams.
“Love what they do with the pro-style system (at Oregon State),” Uiagalelei said. “It feels like you’re playing for the 49ers and Kyle Shanahan. Or Sean McVay’s Rams when they had Jared Goff at quarterback.”
Oregon State’s spring game is scheduled for April 22. If you attend the event at Reser Stadium or watch on the Pac-12 Network, you’re likely to see returner Ben Gulbranson take the first snaps. It’s what Smith did at the first spring practice. Uiagalelei and talented freshman Aiden Chiles went second and third.
Watching the way Smith is easing Uiagalelei into the fray is an interesting study. Every Pac-12 program will bring one star offensive and defensive player to Pac-12 Media Day in July. In Smith’s five seasons as the head coach at OSU, he’s never brought a quarterback.
That tradition is unlikely to change this summer at the event scheduled for July 21 in Las Vegas. In fact, the prevailing thought is that Smith won’t name the starter until just before the season opener at San Jose State (Sept. 3).
“There are no egos here,” Uiagalelei said. “Everybody just comes in and works. They just come in here and grind. You put your hardhat on and come in and work.”
Program insiders tell me that Gulbranson, now a redshirt sophomore, has improved from last season. Chiles, the four-star freshman, has the best arm in camp but physically still looks like a high school senior. His time will come. Uiagalelei, who is 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, looks imposing under center.
“I feel comfortable out there,” he told me. “I’m not hearing the coaches yell at me each and every play if I miss a throw or miss a read. They just let us go out there and play.”
That comment wasn’t a slap at his former coach, Dabo Sweeney. Uiagalelei’s confidence was simply broken at Clemson. He looked uncomfortable and indecisive. Quarterbacks will tell you that they’re at their best when they’re reading and reacting — not thinking. Hyper-analysis and hesitation aren’t good friends to a successful passer.
Said Uiagalelei of Smith and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren: “They let the QBs play and feel the game out.”
It was interesting to get to know Uiagalelei a little bit this week. Probably overdue, too. He revealed that his favorite Dutch Bros. beverage is an iced mocha that is flavored with salted caramel. His girlfriend texts him almost daily asking if he wants one.
“It’s called a Flap Jack,” he said.
Uiagalelei’s favorite class: “Golf class. Tuesdays and Thursdays. I just go hit golf balls… if I hit it straight, I can hit it 300 yards.”
What DJ learned from his mom: “My mom is my rock… the biggest thing she taught me is keeping God first in our lives and being able to trust him.”
What he’s binge-watching on TV: “I’m a big ‘Snowfall’ guy right now. I started watching like a month ago. We’re on Season 4.”
Oregon State is coming off a 10-3 season that included a bowl victory over Florida. The success of 2022 positioned the Beavers to get more talented players in the transfer portal. Uiagalelei was a coveted star out of high school and is now the best, most experienced, talent that Smith has ever had under center.
Still, DJ Uiagalelei is not the face of OSU’s football franchise.
Not next summer.
In fact, he may never be sold to the public that way.
“One day at a time,” Uiagalelei said. “You can’t look too far ahead. The only thing we’re promised is today. We’re not promised tomorrow.”
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Loved his comment about no egos, everybody just comes out and works. That's the culture Jonathan Smith has built.
Lifelong Duck. Born in Eugene. Dad played baseball there. I absolutely love Coach Smith and everything about what he is doing in Corvallis. Was genuinely thrilled to see them beat Florida. Big things happening in Corvallis. Frankly, just a more buttoned up program right now than Oregon. Part of that is the stability they've had with Coach Smith. It's great to see. Can't wait to see what they do this coming year.