December 2, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

Jowon Briggs Leaves Program, Fans Shaking Their Heads; Dillon Reinkensmeyer Done

Virginia football fans were riding the feel-good waves of a two-game winning streak at the beginning of this week. It’s been looking like the Wahoos are rounding into form, just as the season enters the home stretch.

Then bad news arrived Tuesday afternoon.

Sophomore starting defensive lineman Jowon Briggs had entered the transfer portal. Fans were in shock.

Pretty soon, Briggs was scrubbed from the official roster on UVa faithful scratched their heads all afternoon and evening.

Briggs, 6-foot-1 and 310 pounds, was the highest-rated recruit of the Bronco Mendenhall era, selecting Virginia over Alabama and Ohio State, among a slew of other schools. But really, all I need to say is Alabama and Ohio State, and you instantly know what recruiters thought of Briggs coming out of high school.

A Cincinnati native, Briggs had started every game this season, collecting 20 tackles, four for losses, and three sacks as he was clearly developing into a force in the middle of the line. In 2019, Briggs started seven contests and totaled 19 tackles, three for losses, and a sack. The hope and, frankly, the expectation, was that he was going to be an anchor on the defensive line in the future.

By all accounts, he is a good kid and a good student. It’s well known that he performs with the University Singers choral group at UVa, something coach Bronco Mendenhall was more than happy to let him do, and even encouraged, since the fifth-year coach is all about the development of the person as a whole.

If anything, it seemed like Briggs was another Virginia student-athlete in the mold of Malcolm Brogdon, Charles Snowden, and countless others taking full advantage of the UVa experience. He wasn’t just a player wowing fans on the field. He seemed like the exemplar of what we think of when we think of the best Wahoos. Briggs leaving was probably one of the furthest things from fans’ minds.

With the abrupt nature of the announcement, fans wondered if Briggs had broken a major rule and had been kicked off the team, or told nicely to leave. Why would he exit in the middle of the season, just before the end of the academic calendar? It would have been disappointing but at least a little more understandable for Briggs to have left after the season, as is customary. But to leave his teammates hanging just seemed confusing and wrong.

It turned out fans weren’t the only ones baffled by Briggs’ decision.

Mendenhall said Tuesday night during his coach’s show he also was surprised by the news. He said, “I didn’t see warning signs. My response was like everyone else’s, like ‘What?’”

Defensive coordinator Nick Howell echoed that sentiment Wednesday, saying he thinks it took everyone off guard.

Mendenhall said he’d leave it up to Briggs to reveal the reasons if he wants, and that it is a private matter. It’s possible that Mendenhall doesn’t even know the true reasons. Such is life in 2020, when everything is uncertain, and transferring is easier than ever for players.

“I absolutely and always have loved Jowon Briggs,” Mendenhall said. “He is an amazing person first of all. Holy smokes, he’s a good football player. And he has all these other interests that he’s so skilled at in terms of [musical] instruments and music and social interests. That part is not going to change. I feel really lucky to have had the chance to coach him and try to help him in the time that I’ve had.”

Mendenhall even said he will help Briggs find what he is looking for if he wants the help. At this point, it certainly doesn’t seem like anything terrible happened to cause this, just the whims of a teenager and monstrous football player finding out how good he can be and maybe, looking for a bigger spotlight.

It’s a valid point that coaches probably can’t be spending as much time with players off the field because of the COVID-19 protocols, getting to know them and their hopes, dreams, and desires. Mendenhall may have seen the warning signs in a typical season, or heard about some warning signs from his staff. Former Virginia standout Clint Sintim is in his first year as the defensive line coach.

Former DL coach Vic So’oto recruited Briggs. So’oto moved to USC in the offseason. Perhaps Briggs has been chatting with him through back channels. Briggs could have his eye on the Trojans or another big-name school.

The pandemic throws a whole new wrench into things. Maybe Briggs was just tired of the protocols and wanted to get back to normal life. Perhaps his passion really does lie off the gridiron, and he would like to pursue that further, and not at UVa. Maybe he wants to just move back closer to his family. Barring an emergency, though, none of these are reasons to leave your teammates in the middle of the season, a season in which you are one of the stars of the defense. It just doesn’t make much sense.

All we have is speculation for now. Unless Briggs wants to provide an answer, Virginia fans may never know the true motivation behind why one of the team’s promising young stars just up and left the program.

Left Guard Reinkensmeyer Out For Season

Mendenhall had more bad news to deliver Tuesday night as well. Senior Dillon Reinkensmeyer, who had started every game at left guard in 2020, is out for the rest of the season after suffering a lower-extremity injury against Louisville.

Offensive coordinator Robert Anae indicated Wednesday sophomore Joe Bissinger could be the one to slide into that starting role. Bissinger played in 11 games in 2019 and has seen time this season. It is a blow for a unit that has taken big strides this season, but there is depth, and I think overall, the offense will be OK.

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