By Brad Fauber
WOODSTOCK -- Standing at just 5 feet, 4 inches and weighing 151 pounds, Central High School senior Daniel Molina doesn't exactly embody the image of a physical running back. But put a football in his hands, and Molina will gladly go toe to toe with any defender standing in his path.
It's a mentality that Molina says has just kind of always been there, the product of the passion he holds for the sport. Molina is always searching for ways to get that extra yard, and sometimes that means inviting contact from defensive linemen and linebackers twice his size.
"You can't really do much when you've got two big guys coming at you, so what else is there to do than to lower your shoulder and try to get that extra yard?," Molina said after practice on Tuesday.
It's easy for Molina to think that way now, but he wasn't nearly as fearless a few months ago.
After tearing the meniscus in his left knee and missing the final five games of Central's 2012 season, Molina was understandably a little hesitant about how well he thought his surgically repaired knee would hold up during his senior year.
Though Molina participated in the spring track and field season, he said he wasn't nearly at full strength at that time.
"I wasn't really running. I was pretty much doing therapy, is what it was," Molina said.
It wasn't until the sports-free summer months rolled around that Molina's knee reached its full strength. Molina experienced no issues during the first few weeks of fall football practice in August, but his concerns were fully dismissed following Central's scrimmage against Page County on Aug. 15.
"Before the first game I was scared of how my knee was going to hold up and everything. It did fine and after that I just completely forgot about it," Molina said. "It was exciting to be back. I was really happy and excited. I was probably too excited, because I didn't really look like myself. But then as the season went on I got back to my usual ways."
Molina has been running around -- and through -- opposing defenses since.
Through 12 games this season, Molina has carried the ball 236 times, amassing 1,707 yards and 24 touchdowns along the way.
Molina has topped 200 yards rushing twice this season -- including a season-high 238 yards against William Monroe on Oct. 11 -- and has scored at least one touchdown in every game except the season opener against John Champe. He also scored a career-high four touchdowns in back-to-back games against Madison County and Strasburg late in the regular season.
In last Saturday's Class 3A East region second round playoff game against Poquoson, Molina carried 26 times for 121 yards as the Falcons shied away from spread formations and relied heavily on a power running game. Molina also had a 1-yard touchdown run, a play in which he carried an Islanders defender across the goal line.
"He's been a rock to lean on," Falcons coach Mike Yew said. "He's not the biggest running back, but he runs with a lot of heart and he really sticks his nose in there. I don't know if you can find anybody else his size who is willing to just stick his nose in there every play. He fights for every yard. He leans, flips, twists, turns and everything that he can to get everything he can out of every possession."
Molina has also proved to be dangerous in the kick return game, provided that opposing teams kick the ball in his direction. Molina has returned just seven kicks this season, but he is averaging 32.6 yards per return and has taken two of those back for touchdowns.
In the Falcons' high-powered passing attack, Molina gets lost in the handful of big-play wide receivers that Central trots out each and every week. But he has been a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield when called upon, snagging 11 passes for 104 yards.
"He's definitely a safety valve, in any situation," Falcons quarterback Hayden Bauserman said. "Not only in the run game, but I feel comfortable throwing the ball to him too, either out in the flat or on screen plays. He's an all-around good player."
Central (10-2) will rely on Molina once again to help maintain the offensive balance that has been key for the offense all season when the Falcons travel to No. 2 Loudoun Valley today for the regional semifinals.
The Falcons have a chance to advance past the third round of the playoffs for the first time in school history, and that feat would only add to what has been an unforgettable season for Molina.
"I did not expect to have a season like this," Molina said. "But I surprised myself. I've definitely surprised myself."
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com. Follow on Twitter @BradFauberNVD