CHARLOTTESVILLE – More than once, Walnut Hills High School football coach Gerry Beauchamp walked into his locker room and found his star defensive tackle singing with teammates.
The talents of the 6-foot-2, 286-pound Jowon Briggs, an Under Armor High School All-American, were never limited to the football field. Briggs was an accomplished performer in school musicals, along with a few of his teammates.
“I walked in on him a few days,” Beauchamp said. “They never really just busted out and did it in front of us coaches, but there were several times I walked in and him and a couple other kids are going through a performance or a song. They kind of get bashful when the head coach walks in, but I caught him a few times.”
Saturday night, Briggs is slated to start for Virginia at nose tackle as a true freshman, a rarity in the college game. But with his blend of size, strength and maturity, Briggs is a rare talent, on and off the field.
When UVA was recruiting Briggs, a four-star prospect and Top 100 recruit by most services, defensive line coach Vic So’oto would frequently speak to him by phone late in the evening, after Briggs had finished a shift working at a Cincinnati area restaurant, one of a number of part time jobs he held in high school.
“The way we recruit here is real personal,” So’oto said. “I talked to him after he got off his work shift, every night, 11:30 at night. You develop a relationship and learn a lot about the guys. He’s a unique kid. He’s mature beyond his years.”
In fact, Briggs will still be 17 years old when the Cavaliers kick off the season at Heinz Field on Saturday night. He turns 18 the next day.
He arrived at Virginia with plenty of hype from the recruiting circuit – Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan State were among his suitors – a palpable buzz that seemed to captivate everyone but Briggs himself. He spent his time learning the team’s 3-4 defensive scheme and working to earn the respect of his new teammates and coaches.
“The most impressive thing is just his maturity, the way he’s stepped right in, especially with the high expectations, this highly recruited guy,” UVA co-defensive coordinator Kelly Poppinga said. “But he came right in mature, humble, willing to learn, willing to be coached and just willing to work. …
“He’s never felt entitled to anything. He’s earned everything up to this point.”
And he hasn’t changed off the field, still pursuing other interests away from the sport that’s earned him so much praise.
“I received a text from him talking about a possible conflict when choir tryouts would be with the class,” UVA coach Bronco Mendenhall said. “He’s well rounded. He’s looking for a lot to do in college besides just starting at nose tackle. Nothing has been too fast for him.”
Mendenhall is starting his fourth season with the Cavaliers and in Briggs, he may finally have a prototypical nose tackle to anchor the middle of his 3-4 defensive scheme. The past seasons, Virginia has made nose tackles out of Donte Wilkins and Eli Hanback. Those two played well but Briggs has the size and strength to be a natural fit at the position.
His emergence also means Hanback, now a senior who has played in every game of his college career, can move outside to defensive end.
That’s all assuming Briggs handles live game action Saturday as well as he’s handled practices and scrimmages, no small task for someone his age.
“To play on the offensive on the defensive line as a true freshman, you gotta be pretty special,” said Beauchamp, a former director of recruiting for the University of Cincinnati. “I wasn’t sure if he’d get some playing time, be in the rotation? I can’t say I’m surprised, but at the same time, you think about it, and wow, that’s pretty special.”
A year, Virginia actually played two true freshman up front, nose tackle Jordan Redmond and end Aaron Faumaui. That was, in large part, due to necessity. Now, the Cavaliers have the depth that they’ll be able to rotate defensive linemen and won’t have to play anyone before they’re ready.
Briggs appears to be.
“He acts like he’s 25, and he looks like he’s 40,” So’oto said.