He may be 22 and a rookie, but make no mistake, Jets LB Jonanthan Vilma is a team leader. (Jets Insider.com Photo)
When the Jets drafted Jonathan Vilma with their first pick in the 2004 NFL Draft, there were high expectations. Vilma has exceeded those expectations while starting at MLB the past three weeks in place of injured Sam Cowart.
With the departure of long time starters Mo Lewis and Marvin Jones this off-season, Vilma was expected to contribute significantly this fall but was put to the test when Cowart went down with a knee injury against San Diego in week two.
Filling in for Cowart at MLB, the Rookie has done a superb job and is third on the team with 24 tackles. More importantly, since the 22 year old took his first steps onto the practice field at mini-camp this spring he has been one of the team’s new leaders.
Coming from the University of Miami, Vilma is used to playing under pressure. Vilma was the leader of the Hurricane defense and certainly left his mark, finishing his college career with 371 tackles, three sacks, seven fumble recoveries, and one interception. He led Miami in tackles each of his last three seasons.
Vilma showed that he is smart off the field as well, earning Academic All-Big East Conference honors three times.
He has been able to pick up defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson’s complicated scheme’s quickly. Vilma talked about the responsibilities of the MLB.
“It’s being the quarterback of the defense. I need to know down and distance and the personnel,” Vilma said.
Henderson has been impressed with Vilma’s leadership.
“He is definitely one of the guys that when we brought him in we knew he had leadership skills,” Henderson said. “He has definitely shown us that. He is fine (with learning the new system). One thing that impressed me with him is that you tell him once, he is going to make that call.”
Vilma says he has been calling plays since high school so it is not a challenge.
The rookie has improved every game while gaining confidence and earning the respect of the veterans.
“I am confident in him,” DE Shaun Ellis said. “I am pretty sure he is a guy that is going to do the right thing. He is a smart player. He knows what he is doing. I don’t have any concerns about him.”
“It is great,” Vilma said about making an impact as a rookie. “They are going to say you are a rookie and you have to prove yourself. And it is good that I am proving myself with my play.”
Vilma made his first career start in his hometown of Miami on October 3 and did not disappoint as he finished with eight tackles in the 17-9 victory.
The following week in a 16-14 win against Buffalo, Vilma made his first career sack.
Last week against San Francisco, Vilma made the game saving interception, stepping in front of 49ers QB Tim Rattay’s pass and returning it 14 yards. For his performance, Vilma was nominated for Rookie of the Week honors.
Vilma is not the only Jet rookie who has been up for Rookie of the Week as FS Erik Coleman has already earned Rookie of the Week honors and was the NFL’s Rookie of the Month in September.
Both have also received the coveted black jersey from the Jets coaches. The black jerseys are given out every Friday to a Jets defensive player who has practiced hard. The player has to keep up their practice level to retain the black jersey. CB David Barrett, DE Shaun Ellis, and DT Dewayne Robertson also have received the black jersey.
The Jets linebacking corps were in shambles last season with the slow and aging Lewis and Jones leading the way. After the season ended it was the team’s top priority to get younger and faster at LB. Lewis and Jones were sent packing, Cowart was moved back to his natural position the middle, sophomore Victor Hobson was promoted to a starter, veteran Eric Barton was signed from the Raiders and Vilma was drafted as the team’s top pick.
The results of the extreme makeover have been nothing short of earth shattering. With the linebacking shakeup and improved play by the defensive line and secondary, the Jets now have the 11th ranked defense in the NFL and are also number one in the AFC in turnover ratio, at plus nine. Also, after being tormented by running backs the last few seasons they are now 8th in the league against the run and have not surrendered a 100 yard rushing performance by any running back they have faced so far this season.
Despite his early success, Vilma feels each week he is improving.
“I am getting more knowledge as I go,” Vilma said. “Each week I am improving, as far as the defense, as far as the conditions and I keep working on the little things.”
Head Coach Herman Edwards talked about the type of player Vilma is.
“He’s a quiet and confident player,” Edwards said. “And he should be because he prepares himself.”
Vilma is a big part why the Jets defense has not allowed a 100-yard rusher or receiver this year. They will have a big test to see how far they have come when they face New England on Sunday and despite the outcome the Jets have to feel good about a rookie that will likely be a team leader and gamebreaker for many years to come.