Freshman defensive lineman Jowon Briggs is the highest rated recruit Virginia football coach Bronco Mendenhall has landed in Charlottesville, but he’s also quite the accomplished thespian and musician.
That at times could cause a scheduling conflict, which Mendenhall said is a good problem to have.
“I received a text from him talking about a possible conflict when choir tryouts would be,” Mendenhall said. “By the way, I viewed that positively that he’s looking for a lot to do in college besides just starting at nose tackle.”
Briggs’ love of the fine arts certainly hasn’t hurt him on the field.
Ahead of Saturday’s season opener at Pittsburgh, Virginia released its first depth chart of the year on Monday and he’s the lone first-year to earn a starting spot. He’s listed ahead of sophomore Jordan Redmond at nose tackle, with Richard Burney and Eli Hanback at defensive end in the Cavaliers’ 3-4 scheme.
“He’s strong and he’s quick and he’s smart and he’s mature and he doesn’t view himself through the entitlement process of recruiting,” Mendenhall said. “The team likes him because he’s humble and hard working. He’s just exactly who we thought he was.”
Five other freshmen appeared on the depth chart. Ja’Quay Hubbard is Dillon Reinkensmeyer’s backup at right guard, early enrollee Dorien Goddard is wide receiver Hasise Dubois’ backup, Nick Jackson is backing up Jordan Mack at inside linebacker and Justin Duenkel is backing up Brian Delaney at kicker.
Freshman running back Mike Hollins is listed behind Jamari Peacock and Chris Sharp as the Cavaliers’ “B” back.
’Hoos filling holes
Virginia spent the offseason trying to fill some pretty critical holes on the roster. On Monday, the Cavaliers announced who would be stepping into those shoes.
The three positions that needed filling were slot receiver, which was vacated by last season’s top receiver, Olamide Zaccheaus, outside linebacker, which was once home to Chris Peace, and No. 2 cornerback after Darrius Bratton was lost to a season-ending knee injury.
Junior Nick Grant is listed as the starter at cornerback opposite Bryce Hall. He spent the past three years playing mostly on special teams, but Mendenhall said this fall Grant “simply wouldn’t relinquish the spot” at corner.
“He’s the most conditioned player, I would say, on our team, and he’s made the most plays at corner,” Mendenhall said. “Whoever we throw in the mix to stack against him, he just seems to outperform them over and over and over again.”
Grant is wearing a number this season that is almost universally revered — No. 1 — and his teammates say he earned it.
“I’ve been working with ‘Nino’ for the past three years now, and he’s made amazing advancement in his playing style,” junior wide receiver Terrell Jana said. “He’s one of the hardest workers in the program, so I’m not surprised by it. He’s a fierce player. That’s the best way to describe him.”
Redshirt freshman Jaylon Baker is listed as Grant’s backup, while sophomore Heskin Smith is backing up Hall.
At outside linebacker, Noah Taylor is taking over for Peace on the weak side. He’s listed on the depth chart as potentially sharing snaps with Matt Gahm, but his coaches said the 6-foot-5 sophomore had the most physically impressive offseason of anyone on the team, and they’re counting on that physicality paying off this season. Elliott Brown is backing up Charles Snowden on the strong side.
As expected in the slot, where Zaccheaus caught 93 passes a year ago, Tavares Kelly or Billy Kemp will see the bulk of the work. Kelly appeared in every game last season and finished with 10 catches for 121 yards.
Taulapapa leads RBs
Sophomore running back Wayne Taulapapa exited the spring as the favorite to win the starting running back’s job. The competition was back and forth all summer and in fall camp, but with Monday’s release of the depth chart, he’s now officially the starter.
The depth chart reads Taulapapa or PK Kier or Lamont Atkins at scat-back, but Mendenhall called Taulapapa the No. 1 option during Monday morning’s press conference.
“Wayne is the most trustworthy and the most versatile to this point and has had the most production to this point,” Mendenhall said. “Others will be capable and will play, and the production might shift in the game to where we’re wondering how did that just happen?”
Taulapapa missed last spring while serving a two-year LDS mission in Nicaragua.
Offensive line takes shape
The offensive line looks like this on the initial depth chart: Ryan Nelson at left tackle, Chris Glaser at left guard, Olusegun Oluwatimi at center, Reinkensmeyer at right guard and 6-foot-10 Ryan Swoboda at right tackle.
Oluwatimi beat out Tyler Fannin for the starting center job. Redshirt freshman Derek Divine is backing up Swoboda, and Bobby Haskins — who saw time at both tackle spots last season — is listed behind Nelson. After a strong spring and summer, redshirt freshman Joe Bissinger is backing up Glaser.
Special teams aces
Last season, walk-ons Chuck Davis and Perris Jones cracked the starting lineup as punt and kick returners, respectively. This fall, they’re both back in those roles and Davis is taking on more responsibility in the passing game.
On Monday’s depth chart, Davis is listed as splitting reps with Kelly as the starting punt returner, and he’s listed as wide receiver Joe Reed’s backup.
“Chuck catches everything. He has from the beginning of fall camp all the way until today,” Mendenhall said. “While others have flashed and had good days or catches or plays, Chuck just, through his total volume of work and consistency and the ability to be assignment-sound, has him listed at that spot.”
Jones cracked the depth chart late last season, and he once again joins Reed as the Cavaliers’ primary kick returners.
“He just won’t stop. We do hard, hard things, and he thrives on that,” Mendenhall said of Jones. “It doesn’t seem like you can do anything hard enough for him not to come out smiling and capable.”
Delaney is listed as the kicker and kickoff specialist, and while the depth chart reads Delaney or Nash Griffin at punter, Griffin will get the initial nod after Mendenhall said the former walk-on was awarded with a scholarship on Saturday.
There remains a resounding “or” between Lee Dudley’s name and Enzo Anthony’s at long snapper, though neither has earned a jersey number yet.
Virginia opens the season at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.
Ron Counts covers University of Virginia athletics for The Daily Progress. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, (434) 978-7245, or on Twitter @Ron_CDPsports.