Fresh starts for DJ Uiagalelei and five other college quarterbacks

CORVALLIS, Ore. — DJ Uiagalelei walked to the back of Oregon State’s media room, looking for an off-switch to stop the music still blaring from a photo shoot with visiting recruits.

After a brief search, he found the right button and took a seat as the room fell silent. Uiagalelei doesn’t need a soundtrack for the next phase of his college career. He experienced the glitz of being a five-star recruit for an upper-crust program, and was then anointed as Clemson’s next great quarterback, following Trevor Lawrence and Deshaun Watson. Uiagalelei was among the first group of high-profile college athletes to benefit from name, image and likeness opportunities, reaching deals with Dr Pepper, Bojangles and other brands.

He lives a simpler life these days, even while trying to absorb a complex offense at Oregon State, where he transferred after three years at Clemson. Uiagalelei moved from a small college town in the Southeast to one in the Northwest, but the places and the programs couldn’t be more different. Clemson is the ultimate fishbowl, especially for the starting quarterback of an annual College Football Playoff contender. Here, he enjoys a level of anonymity, not drawing much attention as he and his girlfriend sample restaurants around town.

Those who have been around Oregon State describe the program as one where outsized egos don’t fly. Uiagalelei has blended in well. He picked Oregon State with a clear purpose, to master an offense he feels better suits his skills, and one that will ultimately help his profile for the NFL. He also doesn’t want to look too far ahead.

“My story, this is not how I envisioned it, but that’s the beauty of it,” Uiagalelei told ESPN. “You always have a sense of what you want your future to look like, everyone dreams about it, but you don’t know. You’re not promised tomorrow, we’re only promised today.”

Uiagalelei is among the group of quarterbacks seeking fresh starts at different programs in 2023. Some are immersing themselves in new systems, while others followed familiar coaches, sought bigger platforms or just wanted a new environment. Here’s a closer look at Uiagalelei’s move to Oregon State and five other quarterbacks — NC State’s Brennan Armstrong, Purdue’s Hudson Card, Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman, Kentucky’s Devin Leary and BYU’s Kedon Slovis — who are beginning new chapters in their college careers.

Jump to: Oregon State’s DJ Uiagalelei
NC State’s Brennan Armstrong | Purdue’s Hudson Card
Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman | Kentucky’s Devin Leary
BYU’s Kedon Slovis

DJ Uiagalelei

Previous school: Clemson
2022 stats: 2,521 pass yards, 29 total TDs, 7 interceptions, 62.1% completions

When Uiagalelei decided to leave Clemson late in the 2022 season, he knew his next stop would be on the West Coast. The only question was where.

He wanted to play in an NFL-style offense where quarterbacks broke the huddle, took snaps from under center, executed play-action passes and often threw the ball downfield.

“A little more complex than I was doing at Clemson, a little more NFL style,” he said. “The different stuff you do, under center, the play-actions, the deep overs, that’s why I wanted to come here.”

Uiagalelei studied several offenses that met his criteria and kept coming back to Oregon State. He liked the philosophy used by coach Jonathan Smith and offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren and their approach toward developing quarterbacks.

In April 2019, he took a recruiting trip to Oregon but never visited the other Pac-12 campus 40 miles away. Uiagalelei knew some of Oregon State’s players from growing up in Southern California, such as wide receiver Tyjon Lindsey, who finished his eligibility in 2022, and reached out to learn about their experiences as Beavers. Despite never setting foot on campus, Uiagalelei committed to Oregon State shortly before Christmas.

“When I first talked to him, he was prepared,” Smith told ESPN. “He had watched, he knew some of the scheme we’re running, followed the games, knew a little bit about Lindgren. He does his homework. He said he wanted to go to a style and a system like this, a place where he didn’t have to flat-out win the game himself. We’ve got a run game going, playing some defense, and the West Coast thing helped him.”

Smith added that most transfers pick Oregon State for “the football reason” and an environment that allows them to focus on the game “without a lot of … the hype.” Uiagalelei, who finished his undergraduate degree at Clemson, is often inside Oregon State’s football building, trying to pick up any nuggets he can from the coaches.

“Kind of a quiet guy who asks really good questions,” Lindgren said. “He takes a ton of notes. Just a really cool personality, down to earth, a very humble guy. We practice in the mornings, and he’s coming back in the afternoons, just wanting to learn as much as he can.”

No one expected Uiagalelei to be immersing himself in a dramatically different offense three years into his college career, especially after the way things kicked off at Clemson. In October 2020, he made his first start in place of Lawrence, who had tested positive for COVID-19. He helped Clemson mount the biggest home comeback in team history, passing for 342 yards and two touchdowns as the Tigers erased an 18-point deficit against Boston College. The following week, Uiagalelei passed for 439 yards at Notre Dame — the most ever by a visiting player at Notre Dame Stadium — in a double-overtime loss.

But he could never truly build on those scintillating starts. In 2021, Uiagalelei completed only 55.6% of his passes with more interceptions (10) than touchdown passes (9), while leading an offense that ranked 82nd in scoring and 104th in yards per play (5.17). Uiagalelei showed some improvement last season, completing 62.1% of his passes with 22 touchdowns and seven interceptions, but was benched at several points, including in a blowout loss at Notre Dame and in the ACC championship game. Two days after winning the conference, he entered the portal when it opened.

Uiagalelei mostly looks back fondly on his time at Clemson, especially the friendships he built with teammates like Bryan Bresee, Tyler Venables and R.J. Mickens. He said the main issue, in hindsight, is the offense ultimately didn’t suit him the way Oregon State’s does.

“I wanted to go somewhere where they believed in me, where the coaches believed in me,” Uiagalelei said. “I wanted to go somewhere where they’re going to let me be who I am as a player, let me play free, let me go out there and just cut it loose. Just somewhere where the scheme’s going to fit me.”

Uiagalelei repeatedly cited more leeway as the biggest difference between Clemson and Oregon State. After practicing in Oregon State’s offense, he wished he would have operated a similar system all along.

Although Clemson didn’t hide its offensive identity and gave Uiagalelei plenty of chances to break through, there was skepticism about how the Tigers used him.

“DJ, I don’t know, they just wanted to run him a lot,” an ACC coach said. “I don’t get it. The guy’s got a really strong arm and he’s enormous. They basically used him to run quarterback counter and quarterback power. I bet he has a great year [at Oregon State].”

The irony about Uiagalelei’s transition is that the offense in which he feels more liberated also puts a lot on its quarterbacks..

Oregon State tries to delay showing its formations, so defenses have less time for adjustments. Beavers quarterbacks are tasked with getting the unit in the right play, rather than players looking toward the sideline, as they do in many other offenses. Quarterbacks handle run checks at the line and audibles. Much of the clock management falls on them.

“I obviously don’t know everybody, but from what I heard he experienced at Clemson, we ask quite a bit more,” Smith said. “Protection, snap count, change the snap count, call the play in the huddle, there’s a lot of mechanics that go into that. We’re not trying to make things complicated. There’s strategy behind it.”

Oregon State provides the balance Uiagalelei wanted, especially with its depth at running back, a group led by Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year Damien Martinez, and a line returning all-conference performers Taliese Fuaga and Joshua Gray. But there’s no doubt about why the team added the 6-foot-4, 251-pound Uiagalelei: to spark a passing game that ranked 104th nationally in 2022.

This spring, Uiagalelei shared snaps with Ben Gulbranson, who went 7-1 as Oregon State’s starter last season, and dynamic incoming freshman Aidan Chiles.

“We need to throw the ball better than we did last year, so we wanted to create that competition,” Smith said. “DJ knew the whole time that we had a returning starter and a freshman coming in. Ben hasn’t backed down one bit.”

Uiagalelei’s spring was all about learning the scheme and his new responsibilities. His next phase this summer will be more technical, as Lindgren identified areas in his footwork and throwing mechanics (grip, release) that can be tweaked.

“It’s just refreshing for him, where he can come in here and just learn, feel free to make some mistakes out there, just a reset, almost,” Lindgren said.

During the transfer process, Uiagalelei identified Will Levis as a potential model. Levis played three years at Penn State before transferring to Kentucky, where he thrived in an NFL-style offense under coordinator Liam Coen in 2021. Although Levis regressed a bit last season, he still was a second-round NFL draft pick in April.

Uiagalelei joins a conference filled with transfer quarterbacks and some of the nation’s best success stories entering the 2023 season. Michael Penix Jr. led the nation in passing average in his first year at Washington, after a career at Indiana sidetracked by injuries and, in 2021, shaky performances. Bo Nix had the breakthrough at Oregon he never could find at Auburn. Both enter the fall as Heisman Trophy contenders, chasing the reigning Heisman winner, USC’s Caleb Williams, a transfer from Oklahoma.

“Pick the offense that best fits you,” Penix said of advice he would give other transfer quarterbacks. “Make sure the decision is going to positively affect your career.”

“You want to be somewhere where you’re growing, where you’re really putting your skills to use,” Nix added. “The grass is not always greener, it’s not always perfect for everybody. I had been through the uncomfortable parts but it still wasn’t right. I was fortunate to have a great opportunity, and I decided to act upon it.”

Both Penix and Nix reunited with coaches — Washington’s Kalen DeBoer, former Oregon offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham — whose systems they knew. Uiagalelei didn’t know Oregon State’s coaches before he transferred, but he quickly connected with them and his teammates. Martinez has played pickup basketball with Uiagalelei, who he describes as “real chill, real smooth.”

“The biggest thing is you don’t want to come in here and have people think you’re a hot shot,” Uiagalelei said. “I’m not like that. I want to come in here and work, be myself and show people who I am.”

There’s added comfort from being near his younger brother Matayo, a defensive end and ESPN’s No. 65 overall recruit in the 2023 class, who signed with Oregon and was on campus this spring. The brothers see each other every other week. DJ and his girlfriend will drive to Eugene for meals or bring Matayo, who doesn’t have a car, to Corvallis for haircuts.

“I feel more at home here than I did at Clemson,” DJ said. “My personality, I can be more myself here than I could at Clemson. I wanted to be closer to home. I’m a 2½-hour flight [from home], my brother’s 50 minutes from here. It’s easy for my parents to come see me.”

Uiagalelei is convinced Oregon State will be the right spot for him, but he also looks back at his Clemson career as “a blessing,” even the difficult times, which will shape his next chapter.

“You understand that life isn’t easy,” he said. “That was the first time in my life I went through some adversity, so to come out on the other side, I’m just thankful.”

Here’s a look at five other transfer quarterbacks starting anew in 2023.

Brennan Armstrong, NC State

Previous school: Virginia
2022 stats: 2,210 pass yards, 13 total TDs, 12 interceptions, 54.7% completions

NC State offensive coordinator Robert Anae has had a short but significant message for Armstrong since he arrived on campus: Don’t lose it.

There’s the literal interpretation, which resonates for Armstrong after a 2022 season in which he lost the ball a lot for Virginia, throwing more interceptions (12) than touchdown passes (7). His season reached a low point against Pitt when his first two passes were returned for touchdowns in a 37-7 loss.

“Just a brutal time for me,” Armstrong told ESPN.

But Anae’s words go beyond the obvious need to take better care of the football. Anae saw Armstrong’s talent on full display at Virginia after coaching him there from 2018 to 2021 (after coach Bronco Mendenhall’s surprise resignation, Anae left to become Syracuse’s offensive coordinator).

In their final season together, Armstrong had the best passing season in team history, setting records for yards (4,449), touchdowns (31), completions (326) and single-game pass yards (554 against North Carolina).

“I basically grew up in front of their eyes, from 18 to however old I was,” Armstrong said. “Then last year, I kind of lost it. That’s what he says: ‘Don’t lose it, be who you are. We saw what you can do. Just be that. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Those things are going to happen.’ That’s the mindset, I guess because of how many mistakes I made last year.

“He said, ‘We need you out there, going. When you’re going and we’re clicking, that’s when great things happen.'”

Even though Armstrong is new to NC State, he knows Anae and the offense installed this spring. He felt a sense of normalcy operating the system, even while competing with MJ Morris for the starting job and throwing to a new group of wide receivers and tight ends.

“I can weirdly, vividly recall how something looked at Virginia and then it happens here, so I’m like, ‘Wow, that’s what it looks like,'” Armstrong said. “Each day, I felt that same repeated feeling, ‘Oh, I remember that.’ There’s certain things I see with the offense that the guys are just getting used to or they’re not seeing it quite yet.”

Armstrong’s schematic knowledge gave him “a nice voice to start off with” after he transferred into NC State. He recognizes his role in accelerating teammates’ development, especially NC State’s inside receivers. While at Virginia, Armstrong built reliable connections with players like Keytaon Thompson and Billy Kemp IV, and looks for the same with the Wolfpack.

Despite the mistakes of last season, Armstrong wants to recapture the aggressive style he displayed under Anae. Turnovers are part of his game — he threw 10 or more interceptions in all three seasons he started at Virginia — but he also can offset them with production.

“Last year was, ‘Hey, protect the ball,’ just a timid mindset,” he said. “I’m getting back to that aggressive mindset and just letting things fly.”

Hudson Card, Purdue

Previous school: Texas
2022 stats: 928 pass yards, 6 total TDs, 1 interception, 69.4% completions

Graham Harrell was back in his home state of Texas, recruiting as West Virginia’s offensive coordinator, when he received a call from Ryan Walters, the new coach at Purdue. Walters wanted Harrell to be his OC.

After reaching an agreement, Walters told Harrell: “Stay there.”

“I changed shirts and got on the jet with Walt and we flew straight to Austin,” Harrell told ESPN. “We land, and I don’t even know Coach Walt, really, but we’re driving through Austin, trying to get to Hud’s house.”

Walters not only knew who he wanted calling plays, but also the quarterback to execute them. Card, an Austin native, had played at Lake Travis High School and then Texas. Rated by ESPN as the No. 2 dual-threat quarterback and No. 40 overall prospect in the 2020 class, Card started five games at Texas in two years but ultimately fell behind two others (Casey Thompson and Quinn Ewers) before transferring.

He quickly warmed to the idea of playing for Harrell in an Air Raid-style offense.

“If I’m looking for an offense, it’s something like Coach Harrell’s,” Card told ESPN. “It reminds me a little bit of my offense back at Lake Travis. It’s up-tempo, we throw the rock a lot, but it also gives me the ability to use my legs when I need to. All in all, it will bring out the best in my game.”

Card committed to Texas under previous coach Tom Herman but played for Steve Sarkisian, who runs more of a pro-style offense in which quarterbacks “give it to the playmakers,” Card said. After 47 rushing attempts in three seasons, Card looks forward to being able to read defenses and pull the ball when necessary.

“Sometimes coaches don’t always allow that or will scheme it up differently,” he said. “In my college career, I haven’t been able to fully show my capabilities. I was just looking for a place where I could do that and continue to grow my confidence. A place where I can play freely.”

Harrell describes Card as “an elite thrower of the football,” and Card acknowledges he will remain a pass-first quarterback. He can fulfill the accuracy and timing that the Air Raid requires. But because of his athletic ability and footwork, he adds a different element.

Harrell’s most recent quarterbacks at USC and West Virginia, Kedon Slovis and J.T. Daniels, were not running threats.

“He’s the ultimate equalizer with his feet,” Harrell said of Card. “We’ve never really had someone with his athleticism in this system. The first thing he has to be able to do is win from the pocket. Hudson can do that with an added element of athleticism, so what we’re doing, it’s just a perfect fit for him.

“If you can build a quarterback, you’d probably build Hudson.”

Like Uiagalelei, Card is leaving a high-profile program and environment for one more off the radar in Purdue, despite the program’s rich quarterback history that includes another Austin import in Drew Brees, who played at Lake Travis’ rival, Westlake. He FaceTimed with Brees on his recruiting visit.

“I’m from Austin, so that’s kind of all I’ve known,” Card said. “For me to come somewhere new will grow me as a person, which I’m looking forward to.”

Sam Hartman, Notre Dame

Previous school: Wake Forest
2022 stats: 3,701 pass yards, 39 total TDs, 14 interceptions, 63.1% completions

Hartman loves to fish, and after spending five years at Wake Forest, he had several go-to spots around campus. He has already found a few near Notre Dame for his favorite pastime, although he won’t say where they are.

“Can’t tell,” Hartman said, smiling. “Or 150 guys will be standing out there.”

Hartman has entered a much bigger pond at Notre Dame for his final college season. He’ll be the big fish for the Fighting Irish, as Tyler Buchner‘s post-spring practice transfer to Alabama removed his primary competition for the starting job.

Several factors brought him to Notre Dame, including a more conventional offense than the one in which he thrived at Wake Forest. Based around tempo, no-huddles, the shotgun formation, run-pass options and the slow mesh between the quarterback and running back, Wake Forest’s scheme is both distinct and productive.

The offense also can work against players trying to reach the NFL. Hartman sought a different system after passing for 12,967 yards, the second most in ACC history, and a league-record 110 touchdown passes.

“It’s what he needed to showcase himself to the NFL,” an ACC coach said.

But about a month after Hartman committed to Notre Dame, offensive coordinator Tommy Rees left for the same role at Alabama.

Notre Dame’s clunky search for Rees’ replacement ended with the promotion of Gerad Parker to coordinator and the hiring of Gino Guidugli as quarterbacks coach. Hartman has connected well with both while learning the system.

This spring, he caught himself a few times in practice executing plays like he would at Wake Forest.

“It’s sometimes hard to knock old habits,” Hartman said. “But it’s a growing point for me, a good challenge to sit down and really try and learn it and get installs in the day of practice and try to master it, like I know it.”

According to Parker, Notre Dame’s offense is “on the other side of the spectrum” from what Hartman operated at Wake Forest. Some of Hartman’s biggest challenges have come pre-snap.

“Going under center, breaking the huddle, ID’ing defenses to set the protections, all those things are new to Sam,” Guidugli said. “There was a learning curve through the spring, but he’s going to be a much better player for it.”

Parker wants to emphasize downfield passing, an area where Notre Dame has struggled despite the team’s recent success. The Irish ranked 104th in air yards per attempt last season (7.64) and rank 105th since 2019.

In the same span, Wake Forest ranked fifth nationally — second when option teams Army, Navy and Air Force, which rarely attempt passes, are removed.

“It’s the development of people, across the board,” Parker said. “Some of it’s mentality, a trust and belief that, ‘Hey, I can make this play,’ and then if we don’t, we’ll get another chance. Quarterback play and where we put the ball, how we protect, so it’s a little of all of it.”

Hartman doesn’t lack belief after a mountain of production at the college level. He ended the spring with a flourish, completing 13 of 16 pass attempts for 189 yards and two touchdowns in the Blue-Gold Game.

“The biggest thing was to come in here and be in a new environment, be in a new place, learn a new scheme, a pro-style offense and have to reestablish myself as a leader, as a quarterback, on a stage like Notre Dame,” Hartman said. “That’s definitely a challenge with the changes, but with the support here, it’s been easier than it could have been.”

Devin Leary, Kentucky

Previous school: NC State
2022 stats: 1,265 pass yards, 14 total TDs, 4 interceptions, 61.1% completions

When Leary arrived at the famed Manning Passing Academy as a counselor last June, he was paired with two other college quarterbacks: Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud. Last month, Young and Stroud became the first two picks in the NFL draft.

“It was just really cool to see their hard work paying off,” Leary told ESPN.

Leary watched the draft from Lexington, Kentucky, where he’s trying to best position himself for the 2024 selections. A torn pectoral in early October during NC State’s game against Florida State derailed his 2022 season and delayed his NFL dream. He had entered the fall with genuine draft hype, not as much as Young or Stroud, but in the next tier down after completing 65.7% of his attempts for 3,433 pass yards with 35 touchdowns and only five interceptions in 2021.

After entering the portal Dec. 5, Leary two weeks later landed at Kentucky. Unlike his initial college recruitment, during which Leary was enamored by campus life, facilities and other “external things,” he assessed transfer destinations with the clear intent to find a system and a coaching staff that could best maximize his NFL chances.

“It’s exactly what I’ve wanted, exactly what coach [Mark] Stoops expressed to me,” Leary said. “He told me throughout my recruiting process that he was going to surround me with the best guys in the country, and at the end of the day, they’re going to get me ready.”

Offensive coordinator Liam Coen, who returned to Kentucky after a year with the Los Angeles Rams, was the biggest draw for Leary. Coen had the same role at Kentucky in 2021 when quarterback Will Levis, a transfer from Penn State, emerged as an NFL prospect. Although Coen is Leary’s fourth offense coordinator in a college career that began in 2018, his influence has already shown.

When Coen installed the offense earlier this year, he taught it by using film from the Rams, with the same playcalls and terminology.

“It’s really cool to see how Matt Stafford can operate in that offense, how Cooper Kupp runs routes and how Odell [Beckham Jr.] runs routes, and then as soon as we leave that meeting of watching those guys, we go out on the field and run the same exact plays,” Leary said. “So from a transitional standpoint of seeing how the offense translates to the next level, it’s been awesome.”

After undergoing surgery in October, Leary didn’t throw a ball until March but went through spring practice without any setbacks. He now feels 100 percent and looks forward to the summer, when he can continue to build connections with Kentucky receivers like Dane Key, Barion Brown and Tayvion Robinson, a Virginia Tech transfer.

Leary views the past seven months as “just another page” in his story.

“Unfortunately I’ve suffered from injuries in my career, and now transferring to a new school, but it’s all about my journey,” he said. “The truly great ones respond when your back’s against the wall, when there’s adversity. That’s what my story’s all about. That’s something I embrace. There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m going to respond, just like I did in the past.”

Kedon Slovis, BYU

Previous school: Pitt
2022 stats: 2,397 pass yards, 10 total TDs, 9 interceptions, 58.4% completions

There aren’t many firsts left for Slovis at the college level. He has started 37 games, needs one chunk play to reach 10,000 career passing yards (he sits at 9,973) and has 68 touchdown passes. Oh, and he has been through the portal twice.

But this season will mark the first time he plays for the coach he selected: BYU offensive coordinator Aaron Roderick. Before Slovis arrived as a freshman at USC, Bryan Ellis left for Western Kentucky. After three mostly productive seasons under playcaller Graham Harrell, Slovis in December 2021 transferred to Pitt, which didn’t have an OC at the time. Slovis had his worst statistical season for the Panthers last year, completing only 58.4% of his passes for 2,397 yards with 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.

Recognizing he had one chance left, Slovis picked BYU primarily because of Roderick, who had been instrumental in developing quarterbacks Jaren Hall and Zach Wilson.

“That was the thing that excited me the most: ‘Hey, I get to play for this guy,'” Slovis said. “I feel really comfortable with him. We align in a lot of ways. I feel like I’ve known him for a lot longer than I have. It really just clicked, like, ‘That’s the guy I want to play for. I want to play in his system.'”

Slovis was impressed that Roderick had watched every snap of his career, which began with a surge at USC. As a freshman in 2019, Slovis finished in the top 10 nationally in completion percentage, passing efficiency, passing yards and completions, and set team records for completion percentage (71.9) and efficiency (167.6 rating). Roderick also had seen the more challenging stretches of Slovis’ career and presented the quarterback with a plan to get him to the NFL.

“His investment in me and my investment in him, super mutual,” Slovis said. “He could just be, ‘Hey, I care about my offense,’ and he does, but he’s also trying to help me succeed, too. I want to help him as much as I can this year, but I’ve only got one year, too. My goal is to play in the NFL, and that’s something he’s super invested in.

“His selling point was: ‘Come play for me, and we’ll get you to the next level.'”

Slovis wants to apply all of his experiences, both good and bad, to help BYU in its inaugural season in the Big 12. His status within the team is clear, as Roderick announced after BYU’s final spring practice that Slovis would be the team’s starter this fall.

Younger players have responded to Slovis, asking him questions about what he wants from them on certain plays. Slovis also has embraced what he describes as an accountability-driven team, where everyone takes ownership for mistakes.

“I really wanted to take more control and ownership over my situation, and here I am,” he said. “You never know how many opportunities you’re going to get. This is my last chance to really do it on my own terms.”

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