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Dec. 3, 2003

By Cathy Bongiovi Stewart

Every football team lives, or dies, by the play of its special teams units. While the Virginia football coaches emphasize that importance, it takes a special player to be a part of these distinct units.

“Depends on what type of player you are,” senior captain Almondo “Muffin” Curry said. “Some players like to come in and play special teams, because they understand what their role is. There are some guys that coaches have to say ‘you’re going to be on special teams,’ and they have to learn that special teams is a major part of the game. They have to get out there, because they don’t understand how important special teams really are until they sit down and look at how they affect the game.”

Affecting the game is an understatement for the importance of special teams. A kickoff return for a touchdown, a deep punt for less than desirable field position, and a field goal from an unimaginable distance is a major part of the game.

“Special teams is momentum,” Curry added, who’s played on special teams units since he began playing football. “It’s a key part of the game. Special teams (players) might not get a lot of playing time like the offense or defense, but it’s one of the most important factors in the game.”

This fall, Virginia has relied on its special teams units. In the 27-24 win over Wake Forest, sophomore placekicker Connor Hughes quickly became the team hero as he made two outrageous kicks in the final two minutes of action. His first was a 53-yard boot to tie the game at 24-24 and set the record for UVa’s longest field goal ever at Scott Stadium. Then with 10 seconds on the clock, a determined Hughes won the game with a 38-yarder.

“Connor’s been tremendous,” said senior captain and quarterback Matt Schaub. “He’s making all of his extra points and almost all of his field goals. He has one of the best percentages in the country for distance and accuracy. He’s really stepped up and helped us get some points on the board.”

“Just to be put in an opportunity like that was awesome and that I actually did something with that opportunity,” Hughes said of his performance against the Demon Deacons. “It was just amazing.”

Hughes has been nearly flawless this fall, completing 14-of-15 field goals and a perfect 29-of-29 extra points through nine games. He is a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top kicker. But the 6-0, second-year kicker from Williamsburg, Va., takes everything in stride.

“They don’t really mean anything,” Hughes said of his records and accomplishments. “My dad always preached that you could never stop proving things and to never rest on your laurels. I just need to take it one step at a time and not worry about the future.”

A standout player in soccer at Lafayette High School, Hughes credits one of his current teammates with introducing him to placekicking. “Kase Luzar, who’s our fullback, was a senior when I was a freshman in high school,” Hughes said. “He pretty much made me join the team, because they needed a kicker.”

If it weren’t for European football (soccer), Hughes may not have played American football. “That’s definitely how I got into kicking,” Hughes said. “I (played soccer) pretty much my whole childhood. So it really wasn’t that much of a change for me to go out and kick (for football).”

But being a placekicker takes a certain mentality and regiment. “I just take a couple of kicks on the warm-up net. Then I go out, and I try to just visualize the ball going through the posts as I’m jogging out,” Hughes said of his pre-kick routine. “That’s pretty much everything (I do) before (a kick).”

A major part of his focus comes from his own positive reinforcement. “The night before a game I’ll write a list of things like ‘good’, and ‘right down the middle’ and other positive phrases to reinforce it in my head,” Hughes shared. “Then I just have to believe in myself and what God is doing with me.”

Hughes also receives reinforcement from his coaches and teammates. “Connor’s got that kind of easy swing, good consistency, hits the ball the same way every time, and his ball is straight,” Groh said. “Some kickers make a lot of kicks, but they don’t make them this way. I think Connor’s a very consistent kicker.”

Hughes credits his parents for their influence. “Just the way they’ve allowed me (to grow) and taught me to be grounded,” Hughes said. “When times are good or bad, my mom and dad are both just great people. Although my dad would lecture me a lot, and I hated it then, when you get to college, you really learn to appreciate what they did.”

With plenty of football left to play this season and in the next two seasons, Hughes looks forward to his time as the Cavaliers’ kicker. “I would love to go to a BCS bowl,” Hughes said of his goals. “I just want to make everything that I can for my team to win. I’m trying really hard not to worry about personal performance, but if we win the game, I’m happy. If we lose the game and I make all of my kicks, I’m not happy. Even though I can’t do more, that’s just how it is.”

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