CLEMSON, S.C. — Maybe it’s the hair. This much, Cade Klubnik is willing to concede. It’s neatly trimmed, parted at the side, clean-cut, professional and, yeah, a pretty close resemblance to the cut worn by his coach, Dabo Swinney.
But Swinney isn’t stopping with the hair. Klubnik’s bone structure, his facial features, the way he carries himself, assured and energetic — it’s all downright Dabo-esque, he said. They’re cut from the same DNA.
“He could be my son,” Swinney said. “He hates when I tell him that.”
Clemson’s sophomore quarterback can argue with the notion he resembles his 53-year-old coach, but spend enough time around the two and the Klubnik-Swinney Venn diagram looks increasingly like a near-perfect circle.
There’s the unrelenting optimism. Swinney has a habit of summing up even the most bitter defeats as a chance to learn more about his team and get better, and so it sounded awfully familiar when Klubnik shrugged off the worst throw of his freshman season — an interception against Notre Dame that turned into an Irish touchdown — as something he was thankful happened.
There’s the unassuming personality. Swinney carved out his niche in college football by being, for lack of a better word, goofy. He danced awkwardly in the locker room after wins, planned a pizza party for the entire campus upon Clemson’s first playoff berth, coined slogans such as “Bring your own guts” after a win against the Irish. Klubnik might not be quite as quotable at this point in his career, but he’s certainly not image-conscious either, his high school coach, Todd Dodge, said. Klubnik, like Swinney, was beloved at Westlake High in Austin because of how little they cared about creating a slick image.
“We didn’t want cool guys — guys who were more worried about their brand than their production,” Dodge said. “And Cade is probably the most uncool football player I’ve ever coached.”
Swinney’s life was built around football. Klubnik first picked up a ball when he was 3, and from then on, he almost never set it down. Though, this is one of the real distinctions between the two. Swinney was a walk-on at Alabama, a football obsessive whose true talent was in teaching the game to others. Klubnik was so good from such an early age that his future high school coach, Todd Dodge, pegged him a star when Klubnik was in the fifth grade. Dr. Newt Hasson, who was on the sideline for every Westlake High School game for 37 years calls Klubnik the best QB to ever play there, an assessment he said his best friend agrees with. Oh, and his best friend happens to be Chip Brees, whose son, Drew, starred at Westlake in the 1990s.
Swinney is unflinchingly competitive. After Klubnik’s middle school 7-on-7 team lost in the state championship game, he delivered a rousing speech, promising to return better than ever. The team won the next two titles.
Swinney savors every victory with Tolstoy-length postgame speeches, dancing, an endless parade of handshakes and hugs with every parent and recruit he sees. That’s Klubnik, too. After Westlake won the 2021 state championship at AT&T Stadium in Dallas, the team’s announcer was packing up to leave. The lights in the stadium were off, but he could make out a figure sprinting across the field, arms in the air, squealing with joy. It was, of course, Westlake’s quarterback.
Swinney has coached his share of greats at the position — Tajh Boyd, Deshaun Watson, Trevor Lawrence — but task some advanced artificial intelligence to create the perfect quarterback for Dabo Swinney, and it would spit out an image of Cade Klubnik.
“As human beings, in our work ethic, in the nonstop energy we give off, the leadership and the way we live,” Klubnik said, “we’re pretty similar.”
It’s fitting then that, after a two-year absence behind a malfunctioning offense, Clemson begins its quest for a return to the College Football Playoff tonight against Duke (8 ET on ESPN) with Swinney’s avatar on the field running the show and a renewed sense of optimism infiltrating every crevice of the locker room.
KLUBNIK WAS A high school sophomore when his mother posed a question: If he could play for any coach in the country, who would it be?
Klubnik didn’t hesitate. The kid from Austin, Texas, who’d never even traded text messages with recruiters from Clemson wanted to play for Swinney.
For his part, Swinney had no clue who Klubnik was at the time. Clemson was hot on another blue-chip quarterback, Ty Simpson, but late in the process, offensive coordinator Brandon Streeter popped on some Westlake game tape and told Swinney that, should things fall through with their top target, Klubnik looked like a strong Plan B.
Swinney watched the film and was impressed. He picked up the phone and called Klubnik, just to make an introduction.
“We start talking,” Swinney said, “and he’s recruiting me.”
Klubnik had more than 30 offers by this point, and Swinney was upfront about Clemson’s investment in landing Simpson. But, Swinney said, if things change, Klubnik would get the next offer.
The two kept in touch, and the more they talked, the more Swinney liked the kid. On the day before Simpson was scheduled to announce his decision, Swinney pulled Streeter aside and acknowledged the elephant in the room.
“This is weird, right?” Swinney said. “We have this chance to get this great QB tomorrow, but I don’t know. I really like Klubnik.”
In Austin, Klubnik was equally smitten. He had offers from the two places his mom, Kim Klubnik, described as “dream schools” — Texas A&M and Texas — but he couldn’t stop thinking about the connection he had with Clemson. After Klubnik demurred, A&M eventually landed on Conner Weigman, closing one door, and before Simpson made his choice, Klubnik faced a deadline with the Longhorns after getting an anonymous text from someone at Texas tipping him off that Maalik Murphy was scheduled to visit campus and likely to commit.
Klubnik made some calls and was told his best bet would be to commit to Texas. He could always change his mind later. But his high school coach put a different spin on the situation.
“There aren’t many things you have in this world that no one can take away from you,” Dodge said. “Your word is one of them.”
That sealed the deal for Klubnik. He knew where he wanted to play, and it wasn’t Texas.
“He let that window close on both [in-state schools] because he wanted to play at Clemson,” his father, Tod Klubnik, said.
By late February 2021, Simpson was ready to announce his choice. The night before his announcement, Swinney got a long text message from Kim Klubnik. She thanked him for recruiting her son, gushed over how much the process had meant to him, and how much she and Tod had enjoyed getting to know Swinney and his staff.
The next morning, Simpson called Swinney with news. He was going to Alabama.
Swinney’s next call was to Klubnik.
“And he just said, ‘Well, I’m committing,'” Swinney said. “It was one of the coolest moments. He knew exactly what he wanted to do.”
SWINNEY AND KLUBNIK beamed from the dais inside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina. It was Dec. 3, and the Tigers had just won the 2022 ACC championship. Klubnik was nearly perfect, completing 20 of 24 passes for 279 yards and accounting for two touchdowns.
“It was a great night,” Swinney said, “and a glimpse of our future.”
Missing from the conversation, however, was much discussion of the recent past.
If the ACC title game represented the official changing of the guard in Clemson’s quarterback room, the months that preceded it offered little foreshadowing.
Klubnik knew when he arrived on campus in January 2022 he’d open the year as a backup. DJ Uiagalelei had struggled throughout the 2021 season, but Swinney had given the veteran a heartfelt endorsement. For Swinney, Uiagalelei and Klubnik, there was no competition.
For everyone on the outside, the story was different. They’d seen Watson nab the starting job a month into his freshman season, then watched Lawrence do the same four years later, leading the Tigers to a national title in the process. Clemson fans wanted Klubnik to add to that legacy.
In Clemson’s opener, an easy win over Georgia Tech, Klubnik came on in garbage time and looked brilliant. Calls for a quarterback change began immediately, but Swinney emphatically backed his starter.
Six weeks later, Klubnik rescued Clemson from a halftime deficit against Syracuse — the result of three turnovers by Uiagalelei — and fans again assumed it was time to turn the offense over to the kid.
A week later, Klubnik got another chance in relief against Notre Dame. His first — and ultimately, his only — throw was intercepted in Clemson’s first loss of the year.
Then in the regular-season finale, Klubnik remained on the bench throughout a disastrous loss to rival South Carolina in which Uiagalelei completed just eight of 29 passes.
By this point, a hefty contingent of Clemson fans were outraged that the blue-chip freshman hadn’t taken over as QB1, but inside the locker room, the tenor was different.
Klubnik and Uiagalelei were tight, even rooming together on the road. The locker room was staunchly behind Uiagalelei, too, which made any change more difficult for the coaching staff. And for all of Klubnik’s potential, on most weeks, Uiagalelei simply practiced and played better, according to multiple sources inside the Clemson program.
“Me and DJ had a great relationship,” Klubnik said. “We still keep in touch a decent amount. I just tried to be his biggest supporter and make him the best he could be. When Coach made a change, he became that for me. People try to turn a bad eye or turn us against each other, but it was never like that.”
Truth is, Klubnik never pined for the starting job. He’d already learned the value of biding his time.
When Klubnik was in third grade, he’d met Nick Foles, a former Westlake quarterback. Kim Klubnik heard Foles would be attending a workout session in Austin, so she pulled Cade from school so her son could meet him. Years later, when Cade found himself involved in a three-way quarterback battle entering his sophomore year at Westlake, he emailed Foles for a little advice. Foles, who’d come off the bench and led the Philadelphia Eagles to a Super Bowl victory in the 2017 season, offered a lengthy reply imploring Klubnik to embrace his time as a backup.
Be the starter’s biggest fan, Foles said. Always take mental reps. Be patient. Learn.
Klubnik did as he was told, and by year’s end he’d helped Westlake to a state title.
At Clemson, he took the same approach, cheering on Uiagalelei and humbly sidestepping any questions about a quarterback controversy.
“I didn’t know if I was going to get to play in one week or in three years,” Klubnik said. “I just tried to stay confident in who I am and just learn, keep my head down and continue to work.”
That’s where Klubnik’s love for the game begins, his father said. It’s not that he didn’t want the starting job. It’s just that he didn’t mind biding his time because, for Klubnik, the time was still well spent.
“He loves the grind,” Tod Klubnik said. “It’s not that he doesn’t mind it. He loves it. He loves getting up early and working, staying late and watching film. He loves it. So last year, the whole year was the grind and getting better.”
On that dais after the ACC title game, Swinney admitted he’d actually thought Klubnik’s moment would come against Notre Dame. He’d played well in relief in the prior game, and he’d had an off-week to prep for the Irish.
This was all news to Klubnik. When Swinney made clear his freshman was the new face of the program less than an hour after the ACC championship game ended, it marked the first time Klubnik gave real thought to the job.
“I had so much trust in the coaches,” he said. “I came to Clemson for Coach Swinney and that staff to be a part of this culture, and with that is just trusting the coaches — whatever plan they had.”
IT WAS KLUBNIK’S low point of 2022 when he won over the locker room.
His first start for the Tigers came in last season’s Orange Bowl. It went poorly. He threw for 320 yards, but Clemson’s offense repeatedly bogged down in the red zone, Klubnik threw two picks and he was sacked four times. Tennessee won 31-14.
Klubnik took a beating in the game, but in the locker room he was upbeat. He hugged seniors who’d made their last appearance for Clemson. He promised better days to a group of players demoralized by the loss. He was mad about the outcome, too, though. That’s the thing that really came through, said Hunter Johnson, who’d spent the year as Clemson’s No. 3 quarterback.
“He took some shots, and he just kept going,” Johnson said. “After the game he was pretty beat, but it was obvious that didn’t matter to him. He just wanted to win that game.
“I was like, ‘OK, he’ll be a first-round pick, one of those guys who’s going to take Clemson all the way at some point.’ He’s just a winner. That’s just who he is.”
After the Orange Bowl, Swinney fired Streeter and brought in Garrett Riley to reinvigorate the offense. It was, as much as anything, an investment in Klubnik.
The new coach-QB pairing has been a good fit. If Klubnik oozes Swinney energy, he might have even more in common with Riley, a fellow Texan who exudes a palpable confidence that infects every corner of the locker room. Klubnik said the relationship has been a boon.
Uiagalelei transferred to Oregon State at year’s end, clearing the path for Klubnik to finally embrace his role as the centerpiece of Clemson’s locker room. It took a few months for him to become fully immersed in the role, but Swinney raved about Klubnik’s presence and leadership this summer.
A year ago, Klubnik wanted to be deferential in a locker room that had the utmost respect for the incumbent. Now, it’s Klubnik’s team, and it’s a role that suits him perfectly. He led offseason workouts, throws with his receivers constantly and even started a weekly Bible study for teammates at his apartment.
“I’m the leader, the player, the energy-bringer — back to normal me,” Klubnik said. “It’s been a heck of an offseason.”
Now, the job really begins.
Klubnik was happy to wait his turn last season. The time on the bench was never what bothered him. But he has won his whole life — not just games, but championships. That’s what drives him, and last year fell short of that benchmark.
“Last year, that was a good year,” he said. “But this year, we’ve got bigger goals.”
When Klubnik was in the eighth grade, his dad took him to see the Under Armour All-America Bowl in San Antonio. The boy was riveted. When they returned home, Cade taped his ticket stub to the mirror in his bedroom and made a promise: One day, he’d play in the game, too.
In 2022, he was named the game’s MVP.
As a freshman at Westlake, Klubnik was talking with teammates about the future and posed a question: What if Westlake won the next three state titles?
At the time, the Chaparrals had just one state championship in their history. With Klubnik at quarterback, however, they won in 2019, 2020 and again in 2021.
When Klubnik puts his mind to something, he wills it into reality. He still has a whiteboard he uses to track his goals. That’s where the national title sits now, an aspiration written in marker. But soon, more will be written. It has to be.
“Cade always says it’s not a dream,” his mother, Kim, said. “It’s a plan.”