By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — On his first day as offensive line coach at his alma mater, Ron Mattes learned that Jack Shields, UVa’s starting center in 2008 and ’09, had decided not to return for his final season of eligibility.

Head coach Mike London “asked me to watch film and see if we had any centers on the team that could play,” Mattes recalled last week. “So I went through all of last year’s film and I’m watching it and the few plays that Anthony played. I said, ‘Coach, I’m looking at this kid. We have a tough kid here. I think we’ll be OK.’ And so far Anthony has proven me right.”

That would be Anthony Mihota, a 6-4, 285-pound redshirt junior who before this season had started one game for Virginia, against Virginia Tech at Lane Stadium in 2008.

“It was a rush,” Mihota recalled Monday at John Paul Jones Arena. “I’ve never felt so happy being booed by so many people.”

Four games into Mihota’s first year as a full-time starter, he’s proving to be a more-than-capable replacement for Shields.

“We’re very impressed with Anthony,” Mattes said. “We ask him to set the table for our offense and our offensive line and our blocking scheme, and he’s done a great job in identifying defenses and making some calls.”

Mattes made those remarks a few days before Virginia’s game with Florida State. His offensive line, like the team as a whole, struggled in the Cavaliers’ 34-14 loss to the Seminoles, but an opportunity for redemption comes Saturday in Atlanta against ACC rival Georgia Tech.

“Honestly, we can’t be happy with the performance [against FSU],” Mihota said, “but we have to move on.”

The Yellow Jackets’ new defensive coordinator, of course, is Al Groh, Virginia’s former head coach. It won’t be awkward to face Groh, Mihota said.

“Honestly, I’ve never thought about who the defensive coordinator was when we play other teams,” he said, “so I’m not going to start thinking about it now.”

Asked if he benefited from the coaching change at UVa — London replaced Groh in December — Mihota said, “I’m not really sure, to tell you the truth. My work ethic stayed the same.”

At Massaponax High in Fredericksburg, Mihota gained a measure of fame for his play against Hampton in a Group AAA, Division 5 state semifinal in 2005. The Crabbers won 21-16, but Mihota sacked Tyrod Taylor four times.

Mihota said he came to UVa expecting to play on the defensive line, and “then the switch was made to center. I’m not going to say I was excited about it, but I think I’ve grown into the position and I’m comfortable with it, and I enjoy it a lot. If they gave me a choice now to go back to defense, I’d say no.”

He’s on a different academic path, too. Mihota arrived at UVa hoping to study architecture, he said, “but it was just impossible with the time [commitment involved]… The schedule was very hard, and it just didn’t seem like it was going to work.”

So he settled on an art major, with a concentration in new media.

“I want to pursue animation and go into that field and see what I can do with that,” Mihota said, “or maybe even go into graphic design after college.”

He’s also taken classes in painting and sculpting, Mihota said. “I enjoy all forms of art work. It’s just a blast.”

And that class he took in ballroom dancing?

“Helped with the footwork,” Mihota said. “It was fun. Just trying something different, because you get stuck in the monotony of just going to class, going to football, and I thought it would be a fun experience, because that’s what college is about: different experiences.”

Is an appearance on “Dancing in the Stars” coming? “One day,” Mihota said with a smile.

That smile revealed a missing tooth. Mihota’s explanation?

“I was born in West Virginia,” the Morgantown native said. And then smiled again.

MAJOR CHALLENGE: As has become customary during Paul Johnson’s tenure as Georgia Tech’s coach, his team leads the ACC in rushing offense (298.2 yards per game). The Yellow Jackets, led by their brilliant quarterback, Joshua Nesbitt, run the triple option, an offense rarely seen in the NCAA’s Football Bowl Subdivision.

That London and several of his assistants have coached at the Football Championship Subdivision level may help the Wahoos this week, because the option is seen more often in the FCS than in the FBS.

“With the different coaches on staff, there is a measure amount of experience running the option and defending the option,” London said. “Everyone knows that when [defensive coordinator Jim] Reid was at VMI, they ran the option there, and when you’re playing a I-AA schdule sometimes you’re defending option teams … Hopefully we can put a game plan together that will give us a chance to compete.”

As of Monday afternoon, London said, the staff had not chosen a Cavalier to play the role of Nesbitt on the scout-team offense.

“You try to find a guy that’s quick and elusive,” London said. “Sometimes you take a receiver — we haven’t decided who that guy’s going to be — but you try to take somebody that can run and be fairly representative of it.”

Nesbitt (86.8 yards per game) is the ACC’s second-leading rusher. He has rushed for 31 touchdowns in his career, a record for an ACC quarterback.

MAKING STRIDES: A season ago, Ausar Walcott was a reserve safety in Groh’s 3-4 scheme. So was LaRoy Reynolds. They’re now the starting outside linebackers in UVa’s 4-3 defense.

Reynolds was noticeably more productive than Walcott in the opener, a 34-13 win over Richmond, but No. 26 has steadily raised his profile. Walcott, a redshirt sophomore, had a team-high (and career-high) 10 tackles against FSU.

“I didn’t even know until somebody told me after the game,” Walcott said Monday. “I was just out there trying to play, trying to get us back in the game. Our coaches always preach to us to keep playing to the end, so that’s what I was trying to do.”

With 22 tackles this season, Walcott now leads the ‘Hoos. Junior end Cam Johnson is second with 20, and Reynolds, a sophomore, is next with 19.

“I feel a lot more comfortable,” Walcott said. “I just had to really get a feel of what I was doing. In practice, you practice, but you don’t really know what it’s going to be like until you actually get in the game and you get to see the reads full speed and things like that. So after the first couple games, I got into it, and it’s better for me now.”

The 6-4 Walcott said he’s gained about 15 pounds — he’s up to 230 — since changing positions. It’s not that he’s eating more.

“I just lift heavier,” he said. “I’ve gotten stronger. We have different type of strength-and-conditioning [programs]. I always used to do the DB stuff, but now I’m lifting with the linebackers, so it’s a lot more weight that I’m pushing.”

HOT TOPIC: London was asked about facing Groh, as were the players who followed Virginia’s coach — Mihota, Walcott and junior wideout Kris Burd — at the weekly press conference at JPJ.

“We don’t think about it,” Burd said. “It’s just kind of UVa versus Georgia Tech. We just go out there, and we’re going to play the 11 guys they put on the field.”

London had two stints as an assistant under Groh at UVa. Still, London said, this matchup is “not personally awkward. I’ve been coaching college ball for a long time now. And I know that [Groh] knows this is the reality of the profession … There is so much moving around. Your paths cross so many different ways, but the bottom line is when you’re competitors, the job is now to try to do something to help your team win.”

Walcott said he’s “going into it as another game. I respect Coach Groh. He’s a real good guy, so I’m just going to go into it like it was any other game, like he wasn’t there.”

Asked what he recalled about Groh’s meetings, Walcott smiled and said they “were real long. He had a real good game plan for everything he did, and I’m sure he’s going to have a good game plan for us.”

GRINDING IT OUT: Georgia Tech is seeking to record back-to-back wins over UVa for the first time since 1990 and ’91. A season ago at Scott Stadium, the Jackets romped 34-9. Tech’s time of possession in that game was 42 minutes and 43 seconds, its highest total in at least 20 years.

The Jackets got the ball first in the third quarter and produced a touchdown drive that took 10:47 off the clock. Tech’s option attack can wear down a defense, and Virginia’s offense knows it must do its part by getting first downs Saturday.

“As an offense, we never want to see our defense out there on the field,” Burd said. “Like any other offense in the country, we want to put together long drives and be able to move the ball down the field. Because the defense plays to get us back on the field, and we play to keep them off the field. So it’s kind of a give-take relationship.”

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