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Ex-area players relish Chick-fil-A Bowl thrill

MIHOTA, FELLS–DANZER AND HODGES WILL CAP

THEIR CAVALIER CAREERS IN ATLANTA TOMORROW

BY TAFT COGHILL JR.

Anthony Mihota entered the University of Virginia football program hoping to become a starter as a defensive lineman.

Terence Fells–Danzer joined the Cavaliers as a heralded linebacker out of Culpeper High School.

Jacob Hodges was one of the team’s managers before he walked on as a junior.

The three former Fredericksburg-area standouts all endured significant changes to their original plans, but are now key senior contributors as Virginia is set to make its first bowl appearance since 2007.

The Cavaliers (8–4) will take on Auburn (7–5) in the Chick–fil–A Bowl tomorrow at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.

“My whole U.Va. experience has been one to remember,” Fells–Danzer said. “The fact I have played and contributed to a bowl appearance is more than anything I could’ve asked for.”

A WELCOME CHANGE

Fells–Danzer didn’t see that coming when he struggled to learn former head coach Al Groh’s 3–4 defense. He was rated a four-star recruit by Rivals.com and the No. 7 inside linebacker in the nation.

But Fells–Danzer (6–1, 240 pounds) was never comfortable with the nuances of the 3–4. He never surpassed No. 2 on the depth chart, and made just two tackles his first two seasons.

Fells–Danzer knew he needed a jump-start to his career. So he volunteered to help fill a void at fullback when Mike London took over as head coach before the 2010 season.

He’s been a key special teams player and backup fullback since. He was presented the Rock Weir Award for the most improved player on offense after spring practice his junior season.

He appeared in all 12 games in 2010, made one start and scored three touchdowns in a variety of ways: a fake field goal catch, a reception and a kickoff return.

“I would say it’s been a great change from when Coach Groh was here to when Coach London got here,” Fells–Danzer said. “Obviously playing time is a key factor about why I’m feeling better about myself. But I’ve learned a lot about my position and the game. Coach London has a lot to do with that.”

‘FELT LIKE I GOT TRICKED’

Mihota was an honorable mention all-Atlantic Coast Conference selection at center this season.

But the Massaponax graduate had no intentions of playing that position when he arrived on campus in 2007. Mihota’s desire was to rush the quarterback, not protect him.

One of his most memorable high school games was in the 2006 Group AAA, Division 5 semifinals. Mihota sacked Hampton quarterback Tyrod Taylor several times, but the Panthers lost 21–16.

Mihota was proud he was able to corral the future Virginia Tech star signal-caller so often. He expressed a desire to play defense to recruiters.

That’s why it felt like a sucker punch when he was moved to center his first day of training camp.

“It kind of felt like I got tricked,” Mihota said. “But after working at it, I accepted the fact that this is where I play, so I have to sacrifice and be good at it.”

Mihota has enjoyed his best season this year. He was twice named ACC offensive lineman of the week.

He and Fells–Danzer redshirted when the Cavaliers played in the Gator Bowl in 2007. So he’s looking forward to taking the field for the first time in a bowl game tomorrow.

“It’s just a great feeling,” Mihota said.

A DREAM COME TRUE

Hodges was always a fan of the Cavaliers while growing up. But the former Mountain View quarterback received only offers to walk on at Football Championship Subdivision schools.

He decided to attend Virginia as a student just to get closer to the program he admired as a child.

Hodges was the Cavaliers’ manager in 2010 when he talked to players about possibly joining the team. London was receptive to the idea, and Hodges became the Cavaliers’ primary holder for field goals and extra points.

“My whole experience since walking on has been awesome,” Hodges said.

Hodges wanted to join the Cavaliers so he could learn the inner workings of a program, with the goal of becoming a college coach.

But he’s done more than watch and learn.

He’s been involved in several trick plays, including a 16-yard pass to Fells–Danzer for a touchdown on a fake field goal in a loss to Maryland last season.

His proudest moment came when he played quarterback for the scout team earlier this year. Hodges emulated Georgia Tech quarterback Tevin Washington to help the Cavaliers prepare for the Yellow Jackets’ triple-option offense. Virginia went on to upset then-No. 12 Georgia Tech, 24–21.

“It’s been a pleasant surprise to be able to contribute the way I have,” Hodges said. “I came here hoping to be a practice player. I’m just thankful for the opportunity.”

FUTURE PLANS

Fells–Danzer lived in Atlanta as a youngster. He plans to reconnect with family members there this week.

After the final game of his college career ends, he wants to pursue a career in professional football. If he doesn’t reach the next level, however, Fells–Danzer plans to complete more graduate-school courses. He graduated from Virginia in May with a degree in theater.

Mihota wants to play in the NFL, as well. But if his goal isn’t accomplished, he said, he’ll use the studio art degree he earned earlier this month. His concentration was new media, which focuses on animation.

“The NFL is not a sure thing because there are a lot of people that want to do it,” Mihota said. “But I feel like I might as well give it a shot. That way, I won’t have any regrets.”

Taft Coghill Jr.: 540/374-5526

tcoghill@freelancestar.com

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