50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff: First-Year Class Meeting Expectations

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Defensive lineman Jowon Briggs, an Under Armour All-American in high school, is running with the 1s in fall camp as a true freshman. ~ Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics Media Relations

The 23-player recruiting class of 2019 was, according to rankings compiled by national recruiting outlets Rivals.com and 247Sports.com, clearly the most highly regarded the Virginia football program has signed since head coach Bronco Mendenhall took over in December of 2015.

Rivals ranked Virginia’s 2019 Class – Coach Mendenhall’s third full recruiting class as Cavalier head coach — no. 39 in the nation and seventh in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Meanwhile, 247Sports rated the group no. 45 overall and seventh in the ACC. By comparison, Virginia’s 2017 Class, which was Mendenhall’s first full class in Charlottesville, was rated no. 58 overall by Rivals and 247Sports, and Virginia’s 2018 Class was rated no. 63 overall by 247Sports and no. 69 overall by Rivals.

In 2019, UVA broke through with its first Under Armour All-American in the Mendenhall era in defensive lineman Jowon Briggs. Briggs also represented UVA’s first consensus 4-star recruit under Mendenhall. In addition to Briggs, Rivals ranked linebacker Hunter Stewart and offensive tackle Ja’Quay Hubbard on the 4-star level.

Coach Mendenhall stated last December that he is not “big on star ratings as a baseline” for recruits. He has a point considering 2019 Butkus Award watch list selection Charles Snowden, starting safety Joey Blount, potential starting running back Wayne Taulapapa, and standout defensive linemen Mandy Alonso and Aaron Faumui were rated on the 2-star level by at least one national recruiting outlet. Mendenhall did acknowledge the following about UVA’s 2019 Class:

“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.”

“We are gaining momentum,” Mendenhall continued. “The class is strong. And so, yeah, it’s just one of those things that aligns. And I’m excited about that.”

It’s only fall camp, but so far Virginia’s 2019 Class is living up to expectations.

12 – Virginia’s First-Year Class Meeting Expectations

Seventeen true freshmen played in the 2017 season, when Virginia broke through for its first bowl appearance since 2011. Thirteen more played last season as the Hoos went 8-5 and won the 2019 Belk Bowl in resounding fashion.

Despite the rankings and Coach Mendenhall’s own positive outlook last winter and last week during fall camp, it’s not a given that Virginia will field as many true freshmen as it has in the previous two seasons.

“Our program’s in a healthier place; however, there still could be up to 10, I would say, first years that play, and that’s based on how strong our first-year class is,” Mendenhall said following the final open practice of fall camp last Tuesday. “I really like this first-year class from top to bottom. We did a nice job on the selection process of this class. They’re all performing well. That doesn’t mean in the opener you’ll see an abundance of first years.”

Mendenhall, who specifically likes the depth, overall athleticism and physicality of this true freshmen class, without question is high on two first-year players in particular – Briggs and running back Mike Hollins. Fans can expect to see no. 99 (Briggs) and no. 20 (Hollins) on defense and offense, respectively, when the Hoos take on Pittsburgh this Saturday.

Despite an experienced defensive line, the talented Briggs surged to the first-team defensive line early in fall camp and remained there as of last Tuesday.

“He’s strong, he’s quick, and he’s grounded, and he’s assignment sound,” Mendenhall said of the 6’1”, 295-pound Briggs. “He listens well. He’s an unselfish player. Did I say he was big and strong?”

Hollins, who played for one of the top prep programs in the nation in University Lab in Baton Rouge (LA), is a prospect Mendenhall has discussed since the spring as a serious contender to replace Jordan Ellis. Sophomore Wayne Taulapapa has played well in fall camp and could well be the starter versus Pittsburgh, but I will be surprised if the 5’9”, 200-pound Hollins does not get some action.

“Each time Mike Hollins touches the ball, he becomes more confident, more physical, and more impressive,” Mendenhall said last Tuesday.

Fellow running back Lamont Atkins said of Hollins: “I’m really impressed with Mike. He might be 18, but he runs and looks like he’s 37 (laughs). I’m really excited for what he can do.”

No first-year players were part of the first round of jersey selection. Briggs and Hollins were selected to pick in the second round, though, along with quarterback RJ Harvey (no. 40), wide receiver Dorien Goddard (no 84), inside linebacker Nick Jackson (no. 42), defensive back Antonio Clary (no. 30), and walk-on placekicker Justin Duenkel (no 43).

RJ Harvey, pictured here showing off his strong arm, has impressed with his playmaking in space during fall camp. ~ Photo courtesy of Virginia Athletics Media Relations

Harvey, who is listed at 5’8”, 190 pounds, was a surprise choice, but his playmaking ability has enabled him to be in the conversation for early playing time, even if it’s not at his original position of quarterback.

“RJ Harvey, at quarterback as well as any other way he can touch the ball, is a dynamic player in space,” Mendenhall said.

Virginia held its third round of jersey selection this past weekend, and 11 more true freshmen now have numbers. That includes running back Seneca Milledge (no. 96), wide receiver Dontayvion Wicks (no. 87), offensive lineman Ja’Quay Hubbard (no. 75), defensive lineman Ben Smiley III (no. 95), linebacker Jairus Satiu (no. 66), outside linebacker Hunter Stewart (no. 93), outside linebacker D’Sean Perry (no. 98), cornerbacks Fentrell Cypress II (no. 53) and Tenyeh Dixon (no. 92), safety Chayce Chalmers (no. 60) and defensive back Major Williams (no. 90).

Coach Mendenhall called Wicks, a 6’1”, 205-pound receiver out of Plaquemine (LA), “very dynamic” following last Tuesday’s practice. Wicks and Hollins are part of a run UVA has made with Louisiana prospects in the 2019 and 2020 classes, as the Hoos have two defensive back commits from the Bayou state in 2020.

Following up on an earlier “50 Thoughts” article, I think Briggs, Hollins and Nick Jackson are certain to burn their redshirts and play more than four games – once again, if a true freshman plays four games or less, they can keep their redshirt. Kicker Justin Duenkel may do so as well depending on how the punter and kickoff jobs shake out. Goddard, Wicks and Harvey I believe are likely to play more than four games.

Outside of those seven players, I can still see Milledge, who had a leg injury in camp, seeing the field because of his blazing speed. That depends on his health, obviously. Stewart and Perry are physically impressive – I saw Stewart outside the UVA locker room and he is every bit of his listed 6’2”, 220 pounds, if not bigger – and have the talent to make their way onto the field. As could Hubbard and Smiley III on the defensive line. Any of the defensive backs are candidates to play, especially if injuries hit, except for maybe Clary, who was on the sidelines last Tuesday with a brace on his right leg.

Six true freshmen are currently without numbers, including quarterback Luke Wentz, wide receiver Nathaniel Beal III, inside linebacker Josh Ahern, and offensive linemen Kariem Al Soufi, Zachary Teter and Jonathan Leech. Beal, who was one of my initial picks to see some action this fall, is out for the season as the result of a non-contact ACL tear. I doubt we’ll see Wentz this season. Al Soufi and Teter, though, have the size to potentially make an impact on the offensive line depending on how they progress this fall. Leech I think needs more time to develop physically.

50 Virginia Football Thoughts Before Kickoff
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