The Virginia football team is coming off its first eight-win season since 2011 and a dominant performance in the Belk Bowl against South Carolina. Add to that the Cavaliers’ highest-rated recruiting class since 2014 and it’s easy to see how expectations in Charlottesville are at a level unmatched by any UVa football team in the past decade.
The unofficial transition from summer to fall begins in a couple weeks with ACC Media Days in Charlotte, North Carolina. Leading up to the event, we’ll highlight 19 UVa players to watch in 2019. Some are familiar names. Some are new. All are expected to play massive roles in Virginia’s continued rebuild this season.
No. 19 is freshman defensive tackle Jowon Briggs
The countdown of the 19 players to watch this fall as the Virginia football team goes in search of a third straight bowl bid begins with the highest-rated recruit head coach Bronco Mendenhall has landed since arriving in Charlottesville.
Briggs stepped on Grounds this summer as the Cavaliers’ most hyped defensive line recruit since five-star prospect Andrew Brown, who spent last fall on the Cincinnati Bengals’ practice squad.
Briggs came in as a consensus four-star prospect, according to 247sports, Rivals and ESPN, which also ranked him among the top 300 recruits in the country. 247sports ranked him the No. 68 overall prospect in the nation. He is the highlight of Virginia’s 2019 recruiting class on paper, and all signs point to him becoming the latest UVa defensive lineman to see the field as a freshman.
Tale of the tape
» Height: 6-2
» Weight: 295
» Hometown: Cincinnati, Ohio
» Last season: A first-team all-state pick at Walnut Hills High School and the ECC Defensive Player of the year with 54 tackles and six sacks.
» Depth at the position: Eli Hanback rarely left the field last season. He lined up at end and nose in the Cavaliers’ 3-4 scheme and the same can be expected this season. When healthy, ends Mandy Alonso and Richard Burney are disruptive, and sophomores Aaron Faumui (DT) and Jordan Redmond (NT) can only improve this fall after extensive playing time last season. Lanky freshman Ben Smiley (6-4, 260) also is going to push the veterans for playing time.
» Number to know: 700. As an 18-year-old true freshman, Briggs can already squat more than 700 pounds.
» Outlook: Even though much of the hype revolves around a pair of unproven freshmen, Virginia’s defensive line depth is at an all-time high during the Mendenhall era. His wish since stepping on Grounds was to rotate defensive linemen onto the field at an impressive clip. Given his size and strength alone, Briggs is almost assured to be in that rotation as soon as the season opener at Pittsburgh. If he shows enough of a burst to get into the backfield and create havoc, he may be an opening-day starter. That’s probably expecting a lot with what the Cavaliers have coming back along the defensive front but stranger things have happened.
Mendenhall isn’t one to focus on class rankings or star ratings, but he’s also not going to shy away from the spotlight, which comes with landing a prospect as highly touted as Briggs.
“Our momentum generated by this class, by outside and objective raters, has this class fairly high, which means that there’s a perception of momentum and positive things happening at UVa,” he said. “In this particular case it just happens to be right.”
It wasn’t the number of stars attached to his name that attracted Mendenhall to Briggs. It was his extracurricular activities. During early signing day last December, Mendenhall said he and his wife, Holly, learned during Briggs’ official visit to UVa that he plays 10 musical instruments. He’s a 4.0 student, and a video circulated around Twitter last December of him showing off a near opera-level singing voice during a Christmas pageant at Walnut Hills.
“He’s a renaissance man,” Mendenhall said. “He’s UVa, and he could probably walk into any field here and have success right from the be-ginning.”
If Briggs cracks the two-deep as soon as expected, he’s going to have a rude welcome to ACC football. Virginia opens the season Aug. 31 at Pittsburgh, which routinely cranks out NFL talent in the backfield and annually proves to be one of the most physical teams in the conference.
Last season, Pitt showed up in Scott Stadium and averaged six yards per carry while racking up 254 rushing yards in a 23-13 victory. Through the first six games of the 2019 schedule, Virginia’s young defensive linemen will also face Florida State — which is in the midst of rebuilding an atrocious offensive line — and two of the ACC’s better teams in the trenches, Notre Dame and Miami.