Saturday's spring game marked the start of a new era for Clemson football, as it was the program's first time without Trevor Lawrence on the roster since the 2017 season.
After being shut out for the first three quarters, the White team scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to steal a 14-13 win.
Freshman running back Phil Mafah had the go-ahead score on a five-yard run with 1:58 remaining.
DJ Uiagalelei was sacked twice on the Orange's ensuing possession. On 4th-and-16, the sophomore quarterback had Joseph Ngata open deep down the field, but the wideout was unable to corral the pass.
Lawrence, the presumptive No. 1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft, had one of the most successful college careers of any quarterback in recent memory. He led the Tigers to a 34-2 record in 36 starts and won three consecutive ACC titles.
Despite losing a generational talent at quarterback and star running back Travis Etienne from the offense, head coach Dabo Swinney and his staff do such a good job of stockpiling elite players at every position that expectations remain high in 2021.
One of the biggest reasons to be optimistic is Uiagalelei. Lawrence's replacement at quarterback was rated a 5-star prospect and No. 1 pro-style quarterback in the 2020 freshman class by 247Sports' composite rankings.
When Lawrence was unavailable for two games last season due to COVID-19, Uiagalelei showed tremendous potential, passing for 781 yards, four touchdowns and completing 59 of 85 attempts in starts against Boston College and Notre Dame. He also ran in two scores while guiding the team to a 1-1 record.
Uiagalelei led the Orange on an eight-play, 73-yard scoring drive to start the game that was capped off with a touchdown pass to true freshman receiver Beaux Collins:
Uiagalelei and Collins were high school teammates for three years at St. John Bosco in Bellflower, California. The early returns suggest that built-in chemistry could translate well at the college level.
After that quick scoring drive, the defenses on both sides settled in to shut things down.
Sophomore safety R.J. Mickens made an outstanding play on the ball in the second quarter to come down with the interception on Taisun Phommachanh's pass.
Cornerback Andrew Booth was able to one-up Mickens with this one-handed interception late in the first half:
The White team offense was having all sorts of problems in the first half, though neither side was on point after that first drive.
Even though points were generally hard to come by, Uiagalelei did pull off a dazzling throw with this completion to Ngata in the third quarter:
The White team finally got on the board early in the fourth quarter when Phommachanh hit Ajou Ajou in the corner of the end zone:
Phommachanh did suffer a left leg injury late in the fourth quarter as he was trying to put the White team ahead.
Hunter Helms replaced Phommachanh with less than three minutes remaining with his team on 1st-and-goal and trailing 13-7. Mafah scored on a handoff two plays later to secure the win.
ESPN's Mark Schlabach ranked Clemson as the No. 1 team in the nation heading into next season immediately following the College Football Playoff Championship Game in January.
One reason the offense may have struggled in this game is because Clemson generally has a strong defense. That wasn't often the case last season, particularly in the 49-28 Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State.
The Tigers really struggled up front against the Buckeyes, allowing Trey Sermon to run for 193 yards on 31 carries. That doesn't even take into account Justin Fields' 385 yards and six touchdowns through the air.
It was difficult to get a full read on how much better Clemson's defensive line could be in this game with defenders unable to really attack the quarterback
Head coach Dabo Swinney did tell ESPN's David M. Hale on Friday that he's optimistic about Myles Murphy and Bryan Bresee being able to make an impact in their sophomore seasons.
"We took a few bumps and bruises along the way, but Bryan Bresee is so much better than he was at any point last year. Myles Murphy, the same. It's a really good group of guys, and this thing's got a chance, if we stay healthy, to have the type of group that we've had around here and what we've come to be accustomed to."
Despite losing multiple key contributors from last year's squad, Clemson looks to be well-equipped to remain among the nation's elite programs in 2021.
Uiagalelei's potential is sky-high. Wide receiver Justyn Ross, who missed all of last season due to a spine injury that required surgery, announced in January he is returning to school and hopes to be cleared to play at some point.
The defense is bringing back all 11 starters. It's also adding freshman linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. and defensive tackle Payton Page as part of the 2021 recruiting class.