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DJ Uiagalelei 'blessed' to be ending roller-coaster college career at FSU

DJ Uiagalelei probably didn't envision at the onset of his collegiate career that this is how things would play out.

A five-star recruit and the No. 1 quarterback in the 2020 class according to Rivals, Uiagalelei now finds himself entering his fifth season in college football at his third school, Florida State, after things didn't pan out at his original school, Clemson, and the head coach at his second school, Oregon State, left in November to take the Michigan State job.

Even if it's not how he may have envisioned it, that doesn't seem to bother Uiagalelei whatsoever. It may not have been how he planned it, but the quarterback is exactly where he wants to be in Tallahassee.

"I'm happy to be here. Happy to be a Seminole..." Uiagalelei said Wednesday in his first interview since officially joining the FSU football program in January. "There's been ups, there's been downs but for me, man, it's been nothing but a blessing for me. I think in this way of life and the way life is, things aren't perfect. I think God's timing is everything. Sometimes timing isn't how you want it. God's timing isn't something that maybe you want it to be, but it's always the right timing."

Long before Uiagalelei — who grew up looking up to Jameis Winston and watching FSU games from across the country in his hometown of Inland Empire, Calif. — joined the Seminoles, he had admiration from afar for how Mike Norvell was building the FSU football program back.

He twice faced off against Norvell's Seminoles while he was Clemson's starting quarterback, first beating them 30-20 in a road game that FSU led in the fourth quarter.

"I think coach Norvell has done an amazing job with the program since he's taken over. Each and every year, it's been a steady climb. They just get better and better and better," Uiagalelei said. "That's what I saw from the first time I played Florida State in 2021. It wasn't the best year but you could tell there was talent on the team, you could tell there was a coaching staff with belief in the players that the ship's gonna get turned around."

Uiagalelei saw further evidence of himself when his Tigers traveled to Tallahassee in 2022, a game that Clemson won 34-28, one of only three FSU losses that season.

Uiagalelei refers to that 2022 team as something he knew was going to be a force to be reckoned with. He also recalls that atmosphere inside Doak Campbell Stadium as the best road environment he's encountered in his first four seasons of college football.

"Of all the places I've played at Oregon State and Clemson, this is my favorite away game I've ever played. When I played here in 2022, this place was rocking," Uiagalelei said. "Seeing (the Warchant) live, seeing all the fans, it was amazing. Seeing the Seminole ride on the horse, it was crazy. I'm excited. Excited about the fanbase, excited about playing here. I'm just excited."

That 2022 game at FSU turned out to be one of the better ones of Uiagalelei's time at Clemson, with him completing 65.2% of his passes for 203 yards, three touchdown passes and a touchdown run.

But it didn't end up turning his Clemson career around. After Uiagalelei threw for 4,767 yards, 31 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in two seasons as Clemson's primary starting quarterback, he was benched late that season in favor of Cade Klubnik.

He transferred to Oregon State ahead of the 2023 season and showed promise in his lone season in Corvallis, throwing for more yards (2,638) on fewer pass attempts (315) than in either of his Clemson seasons. His 8.4 yards per pass attempt ranked 27th nationally and Pro Football Focus ranked Uiagalelei in the top 10 nationally in both big-time throw rate (6.8%, 10th) and pressure-to-sack ratio (8.8%, ninth).

When OSU head coach Jonathan Smith left for the Michigan State job, Uiagalelei again entered the portal and had a very good idea of where he ideally wanted to spend his final season in college football.

"For me going through the process again and being in the transfer portal, my eyes were set on one school. I wanted to be here at Florida State," Uiagalelei said. "This is the spot I wanted to be and I'm just blessed and happy that coach Norvell and coach Tony Tokarz, everyone here on staff was excited to have me here and was able to let me be here, let me be a Seminole."

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A talk with outgoing FSU quarterback Jordan Travis a few days before Uiagalelei's visit to Tallahassee the weekend of Dec. 15 further confirmed what the quarterback thought.

"I wanted to ask (Travis) a couple questions about the program, how are those coaches? Off the field, how are they as men? He had nothing but great things to say," Uiagalelei said. "When that comes from your starting quarterback for a couple of years now, that's all you need to hear. So when I heard that, it kind of proved all my points that I had thought about coach Norvell and all the other coaches here. It kind of just solidified it. There was no one else I really needed to talk to."

Getting to spend time with Norvell and Tokarz, the FSU quarterbacks coach, during his visit only further drilled home to Uiagalelei that FSU was the place for him.

"I think Coach Norvell does an amazing job on offense. I've been a fan of what he does for some time now since I've been at Clemson..." Uiagalelei said. "Once I met coach Norvell and I got to talk to him a lot more, got to talk ball with him, I knew this was the right spot. Even before that, I'd done my homework, I looked at the offense, looked at what they've done with Jordan Travis, how they used him out and developed him as a quarterback. That was one thing I was looking for. I want to be able to get developed, to be able to continue to learn and I want to win football games."

When Uiagalelei visited FSU, he says he didn't care about seeing the facilities or any of what he called the "recruiting fluff" FSU had to offer. Instead, one of the things he valued most was the chance to sit down with Norvell and go over three of his games from this past season where he had varying levels of success and break down what went into his good and bad plays so Norvell could get a better idea for the quarterback's thought process.

"For him to be able to sit down with me and watch three games, have his thoughts about how I played, things where I can get better at, things I did well. Me being able to talk to him asking him like, 'Hey, how you do this? Or what do you think about this?' He asked me like, 'What was your read here? How do you guys see the defense? How do you guys read this play?' It was cool," Uiagalelei said. "Because for me, man, that's all I want to do. I want to continue to keep getting better at quarterback, continue to learn. Coach Norvell, he's an extremely smart coach. For me, that was a big reason why I wanted to be here. I want to learn from him."

After seeing how Travis blossomed into one of the most prolific quarterbacks in FSU history during his time with the program, Uiagalelei has faith that he can be a similar fit in FSU's system thanks to his skill-set and experience with 48 career game appearances at the collegiate level.

"I feel like I bring a great mentality to the team. I feel like I bring great leadership. A dog mentality, come out here ready to work," Uiagalelei said when asked about his strengths. "On the field, I feel like I push the ball downfield really well. It's something I want to do, throw the rock. I feel I can create plays inside the pocket whether it's getting out or making people miss inside of the pocket and making throws downfield."

"Am I perfect?. No, I'm not. Far from it. But each and every day, I want to get on the field and strive to be able to be perfect in each way I work, from the times of just being in Tour of Duty, times of lifting and then just throwing receivers and being up on the board. There's a lot of things I want to continue to work on, footwork, different stuff, accuracy, pushing the ball downfield. I feel like for me there's not just one thing I'm working on right now. I feel like my whole game is going to continue to get better."

If you're wondering how much Uiagalelei (over 1,100 career rushing yards and 21 career rushing touchdowns) will be used in the run game with his intimidating 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame, he sounds more than up for the task.

"I'm not scared of contact. I don't shy away from contact at all. I'm a big guy so I'll go out there, I'm not scared of it," Uiagalelei said.

With so many important players on offense gone from last year's team, that side of the ball in particular is in need of leaders. Uiagalelei has been praised by a number of FSU newcomers in interviews for how naturally he has stepped into that role, even on a team he's only been a part of for a bit over a month.

"For me, my leadership style, I want to be able to be there, I want to be able to earn trust. Trust isn't something that is just given out. To me, it's something that it's gotta be earned by your teammates. You've got to be trusted," Uiagalelei said. "I'm going to lead by example, come here each and every day, put my hard hat on and just go to work and just put my head down and just continue to grind. That's kind of how I treat things...

"I'm going to be a caring person and be a trustworthy teammate. I just want to be able to be honest with people and be able to go to work. I want to let my work show for itself. I want to go out there, put my hard hat on and just go to work. I don't want to be nobody special. I don't want to be a superstar, man. I'm just a regular player. I'm just one link to the offense and just another person on the team. I don't want to be looked at anything differently, just the guy next to all the teammates in our locker room."

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