North/East Xtra: Shady Side senior back is secret weapon

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Whether it's at practice or during a game, Shady Side Academy coach Dave Havern knows for sure that his star player, Dennis Briggs, will work as hard as anyone on the team.

But as self-motivated as Briggs is, there is one thing of which his coach needs to frequently remind him.

"I try to get him to smile two times a day," Havern said.

Said Briggs: "He's always saying that I look like I'm sad, but I'm just trying to focus and do my thing."

The teenager with the serious demeanor plans on putting more frowns on opponents this season, while showcasing why he has been one of the WPIAL's best-kept secrets for four seasons.

Briggs, a Wilkinsburg resident, has been a starter and key contributor for Shady Side Academy since his freshman season, but has been a relative unknown to people who don't follow the Class AA Allegheny Conference.

Any anonymity was discarded in June, however, when Briggs decided to accept a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.

Now Briggs is on the radar of a large group of local high school and college football fans.

Briggs, a 5-foot-11, 190-pound senior, is expected to play running back at Pitt. He's also a standout defensive player -- he's made the move from defensive back to inside linebacker this season.

The biggest reason Briggs hadn't previously been a household name was that his numbers didn't "wow" anyone. As a junior, Briggs rushed for 473 yards -- third-best on the team -- and scored seven touchdowns.

What many people don't know is that Briggs has typically been the blocking back in an offense that spreads out it's carries. Senior running back Jarred Brevard led the Indians in rushing last season with 687 yards.

Don't let Briggs' lack of flashy stats fool you; when he gets the ball in his hands, he produces. He averaged 5.8 yards per carry last season. The season before, that average was 7.7 when he rushed for 538 yards and six touchdowns.

"He didn't have the great stats, but ask any coach in our conference, and they'll say he's the best," Havern said. "Dennis is so unselfish in that he assumes the role as the blocking back. Not only is he a freak, but he's got the character that you want to see in a young man. I could line him up at guard and he would do his job."

Briggs said he has embraced the role.

"I've always been an unselfish guy," he said. "I'm a running back, so I love to have the ball in my hands, but when I don't, that doesn't bother me."

Havern, who played quarterback at Pitt from 1968-71, can't say enough about Briggs' character, and believes that was one of the intangibles that made Pitt covet Briggs so much.

"He's one of a kind," Havern said. "He's the leader of the team. He's one of the best kids you'll ever meet. He just works hard at everything he does. I think that's why [Pitt coach] Paul [Chryst] liked Dennis so much. He wants those great character guys."

Briggs, an excellent student, picked Pitt over Toledo, Buffalo, Yale and Cornell.

"The main reason I chose Pitt was that they were the first people to give me a shot," Briggs said. "They were my first offer. They came to evaluate me. I knew Pitt from the get-go was the team that wanted to give me a shot. I like being close to home and I really like the coaches."

When one of Pitt's coaches asked Havern which position he thought Briggs should play in college, Havern didn't hesitate.

"I told them he's a running back," Havern recalled.

Said Briggs: "They told me I'll come in and play as a third-down back and see what happens from there."

It might even be enough to make him break a smile.



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