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By Jeff White

ATLANTA — No one who knows Nick Jenkins would call him the shy, retiring type. He’s a big guy with a big personality. But Jenkins plays a position that’s not especially flashy — defensive tackle — and for most of his UVa career has stayed out of the media’s spotlight.

Don’t be deceived. His value to the Cavaliers is immense. Since enrolling at UVa in 2007, Jenkins has started 41 games. Only two current Virginia players have more career starts than the 6-3, 285-pound fifth-year senior: defensive end Matt Conrath (45) and offensive guard Austin Pasztor (44).

Moreover, Jenkins is a team captain for the second straight season. The Wahoos, who finished 4-8 in 2010, are 8-4 this year, with another game to play, against Auburn (7-5) in the Chick-fil-A Bowl at the Georgia Dome on New Year’s Eve. The leadership of Jenkins and UVa’s other veterans has been instrumental in the turnaround.

“The thing about Nick is, he’s a very vocal guy,” said classmate Aaron Taliaferro, a starter at outside linebacker. “If somebody’s messing around or whatever, he’s not going to take that too easily. He’s going to let you know what you’re doing wrong and want you to make it right. During practice, if you’re not being aggressive, you’re not running or whatever the case might be, he’s going to get on your back about it and let you know that when you’re out here on the field, you’ve got to give your best.”

Jenkins, who also had scholarship offers from such schools as Penn State, Michigan State, NC State and Kansas State, committed to UVa in June 2006, the summer before his senior year at Good Counsel High School in Olney, Md. Back then, Al Groh was the Cavaliers’ head coach, Mike London was their defensive coordinator, and the 3-4 was their base defense.

The most thankless position in the 3-4 is nose tackle, and that’s where Jenkins played. He started six games as a redshirt freshman in 2008 and 11 in ’09. After the 2009 season, London returned to UVa from the University of Richmond and replaced Groh as head coach. The Cavaliers changed defenses, too, shifting to the 4-3. Jenkins still lined up across from the center, but he had to learn new techniques.

The transition to the new scheme was bumpy for the Cavaliers, and they struggled to stop opponents in 2010. But the defense has improved dramatically since then, and so has the team. A constant up front has been Jenkins, who started all 12 games in 2010 and has started every game this year.

For the season, he’s made 35 tackles, including five for loss, and recovered a fumble. Not only is Jenkins a fine defensive tackle, London said Wednesday, he sets an excellent example for Virginia’s younger players. They would be wise to to “come to college, get an education, and be influenced by all that they’re surrounded by,” as Jenkins has done, London said.

The Chick-fil-A Bowl will be the Cavaliers’ first postseason appearance since Jan. 1, 2008, when they played Texas Tech in the Gator Bowl.

Three straight losing seasons followed. A fourth, Jenkins acknowledged Wednesday, “would have been tough. It was tough doing it for three years. Nobody likes to lose. We’ve got guys on the team — Perry [Jones], Tim Smith, all those guys — who played for state championships every year in high school. And that was one of the big things we talked about this past spring.”

In high school, the players expected to compete for championships. They needed “to start having that same mentality here in college and bring that over to the college football world,” Jenkins said, “and I think it carried over with a lot of people, and everybody bought in. Literally everybody bought it.”

At the end of the every offseason workout, every session during training camp and every practice during the season, the players gathered together before breaking with this battle cry: “ACC champs!”

“We knew that if we were going to break it down on that, we had to mean it,” junior linebacker Steve Greer said Wednesday.

“I don’t think I’d ever been on a losing team — ever — in football until I got to college, and I think that’s the same for a lot of the guys. Everyone was just kind of sick of losing and wanted to change.”

In January, Evan Marcus left the Miami Dolphins and returned to UVa for a second stint as the strength-and-conditioning coach for football. The players had trained hard under Marcus’ predecessor, Brandon Hourigan, Jenkins said. Still, “there was definitely a difference” when offseason workouts began last winter, Jenkins said, “and it wasn’t a difference maybe of working harder or lifting more weights or running more sprints. But a lot of people did a lot of growing up.”

Jenkins is from Westminster, Md., about 35 miles northwest of Baltimore. His older brother, Mike, graduated from the local public school, South Carroll High, and later played offensive guard on the JMU team that won the Division I-AA national championship in 2004. Mike now runs a gym in Hershey, Pa., and competes in the MET-Rx World’s Strongest Man contest.

Nick would have gone to South Carroll, too, but when a new school opened nearby, that became a less attractive option. He ended up at Good Counsel, where he played for legendary coach Bob Milloy and starred in one of the D.C. area’s premier programs. (Two other UVa players, wide receiver E.J. Scott and defensive tackle Vincent Croce, are Good Counsel graduates, too.)

At Good Counsel, Jenkins was a four-year starter on winning teams and blossomed into a heralded recruit. He quickly became a starter at UVa, too, but experienced losing far more often than he cared to. Which has made this season so special for Jenkins.

“I really don’t know if I could describe it in words,” he said.

Virginia, picked to finish fifth in the ACC’s Coastal Division, ended up tied for second. The ‘Hoos won six of their final eight regular-season games, a stretch that included road victories over ACC foes Miami, Maryland and Florida State.

Until that November night, Virginia had never defeated FSU in Tallahassee. The Cavaliers prevailed 14-13 despite losing defensive end Billy Schautz to a gruesome leg injury late in the fourth quarter.

“I think the moment of the year was at Florida State, when everybody was just obviously drained from the game,” Jenkins recalled. “Everybody was crying because they were so happy. Everybody was so excited, and then we were sitting on the plane when Billy walked in, and everybody stood up and clapped.

“Last year, two years ago, three years ago, I don’t think that would have ever happened. But then this year, with us working as a team, it all just came together.”

Jenkins completed work on his bachelor’s degree in anthropology this month. He’ll head back to Charlottesville in January to train and to work as an intern in sports promotions and marketing at UVa.

“I just want to get my feet wet and see if that’s something I’d want to [pursue as a career],” Jenkins said.

Four-and-a-half years ago, Jenkins enrolled at UVa with such players as Taliaferro, Conrath, Kris Burd, Matt Snyder, Chase Minnifield, Dom Joseph, Corey Mosley, Anthony Mihota and Max Milien. One game remains for them as Cavaliers, and it’s a significant one.

“I’m glad that we’re leaving on a high note,” Jenkins said.

In 2007, as freshmen, they traveled with the team to Jacksonville, Fla. But they were spectactors during the Gator Bowl, which Texas Tech rallied to win.

“This is a lot more fun,” Jenkins said, “because we’re older. As one of those guys, it’s nice to see all the younger kids able to do this and get that taste in their mouth.”

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