Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall has never been shy about putting freshmen on the field.
Since he arrived in 2016, 39 first-years have seen live action. In 2017, 17 true freshmen appeared in games.
With so many young players hitting the field the past two years in particular, only a couple are likely to crack the two deep on offense and defense this fall. But with open positions on every special teams unit and the overall strength of the 2019 class, Mendenhall said don’t be surprised if by the end of the year, double-digit first-years have seen the field once again.
“From top to bottom, the depth we’re adding, the athleticism, the physicality, we did a nice job in the selection process of this class,” Mendenhall said.
With the start of the 2019 regular season now less than a week away, here’s a look at the five freshmen most likely to make a meaningful contribution this fall.
1. Jowon Briggs, DL
Briggs and Mike Hollins are 1a and 1b in terms of most likely to see meaningful snaps, but Briggs gets the nod for the top spot because while Hollins is sure to see the field. Briggs will be in the starting lineup for the Cavaliers on Saturday night in Pittsburgh. He came in as the highest-rated recruit Mendenhall landed at Virginia, and so far, he has lived up to the hype.
“He’s strong, he’s quick, he’s grounded, he’s assignment sound and he’s an unselfish player,” Mendenhall said. “Did I say he’s big and strong?”
At 6-foot-1, 295 pounds, he can played end or tackle in the Cavaliers’ 3-4 scheme, which, on a unit enjoying a sudden infusion of quality depth, gives the coaches even more options.
2. Mike Hollins, RB
Hollins’ high school highlight reel is full of violent collisions, most of which didn’t slow him down a bit. That physicality has translated to the practice field at Virginia. His teammates and coaches were impressed this summer with his strength, and while it looks like the Cavaliers are going with a running back by committee approach, it’s clear that he’s going to see some carries.
“He might be 18 or whatever, but he runs and looks like he’s about 37,” junior running back Lamont Atkins said.
Judging by Mendenhall’s comments since fall camp began, junior PK Kier, sophomore Wayne Taulapapa and Hollins will get the majority of the carries. Atkins, junior Jamari Peacock, senior Chris Sharp and maybe even freshman quarterback RJ Harvey will see the field in a variety of roles — ball carrier, receiver, blocker — and they’ll all land on special teams.
3. Dontayvion Wicks, WR
Virginia’s coaches spent the majority of last season searching for a deep threat, and there have been moments this offseason where Wicks has been exactly that. The 6-1, 205-pound Louisiana native earned praise from Mendenhall in the opening week of fall camp, and highlights of the Cavaliers’ second scrimmage included a scene of him streaking down the sideline and hauling in a long touchdown catch.
“He’s dynamic and fun to watch,” Mendenhall said.
4. Antonio Clary, DB
Darrius Bratton’s injury opened the door for a slew of young players in the defensive backs’ room. It’s unclear if Clary will stick with safety, which is where he played in high school, or move to cornerback, but he’s part of a freshmen class Mendenhall called physically ready to get on the field, and beyond Bryce Hall, he isn’t competing with very many experienced cornerbacks.
If he does move to corner, Clary is behind a veteran in Nick Grant and a trio of up-and-coming cornerbacks in Heskin Smith, Jaylon Baker and Joseph White, but he enrolled in January and already has a full offseason under his belt. Whether he sees defensive snaps or not, Clary looks like an immediate special teams contributor.
5. D’Sean Perry, OLB
Perry could turn out to be the surprise of this class. He’s a big, athletic first-year from Gulliver Prep in Florida — the same program that produced defensive end Mandy Alonso. Co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga called him explosive, and Perry (6-3, 230) could earn himself some snaps as the Cavaliers look for a replacement for Chris Peace. Perry will, at worst, find himself on a special teams unit or two.
“He’s one of the biggest and strongest guys here, in terms of the first-years,” Poppinga said. “He’s had a couple of good scrimmages, and I’m excited to continue to see him develop.”
Ron Counts covers University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress. Contact him at email@example.com, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.