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This Jet Has Rocketed to Prominence

Rookie Linebacker Vilma Quickly Becomes Defensive Leader for New York

By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 8, 2005; Page D01

New York Jets middle linebacker Jonathan Vilma was named the Associated Press defensive rookie of the year yesterday, a day before he will showcase his considerable skills to a national television audience in a first-round playoff game against the Chargers in San Diego.

"It can't get any better than this, you couldn't ask for anything more," Vilma said this week at the Jets' training complex at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. "This whole season has been a great experience for me. The only thing that's bothered me is losing football games. We were 10-6, and that's a pretty good record in the NFL. But it's the one thing I had trouble handling. I just wasn't used to it."

Jonathan Vilma, wrapping up the Patriots' Corey Dillon, is the Jets' second-leading tackler. He had 14 tackles in a loss to Buffalo. (Julie Jacobson -- AP)

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Michael Wilbon: The sideshows will have more drama than the games.
The Jets will look to super rookie Jonathan Vilma to disrupt San Diego's offense.

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Vilma, 22, grew accustomed to winning as a three-year starter at the University of Miami, not far from where he grew up in Coral Gables, the son of Haitian immigrants who came to the United States as teenagers. His father, Fritz, went on to become a certified public accountant and now teaches at Miami Dade College, and his mother, Nally Banatte, is a licensed social worker.

Both parents emphasized academics over athletics. They also were taken aback when Vilma, who was a good soccer player as a boy, told them he wanted to play football. As a 13-year-old, Vilma said, he had to persuade them with "a lot of begging" to let him play. In his first organized game on his high school junior varsity team, his father was in the stands as the middle finger on Jonathan's left hand almost snapped off while he was making a tackle.

"That first game I was watching and I saw his finger go all the way back to his wrist," Fritz Vilma said in a telephone interview. "I ended up taking him to the hospital and I remember thinking to myself on the way home, 'My God, do I have to go through this every week?' But he was determined. You want to be supportive of your children. When I agreed to let him play, the next day he had me take him to buy weights, and the rest is history."

During his four years at Miami, the Hurricanes went 46-4 and the 6-foot-1, 230-pound linebacker was a major reason. The Jets used the 12th overall selection to draft him last April, and when starter Sam Cowart injured his knee in the second week of the season in the Jets' victory over the Chargers, Vilma stepped in and immediately began making his presence felt.

Cowart is healthy now, but Vilma is firmly entrenched in the position and not likely to give it up for a long time. Already there are comparisons being made between Vilma and another former Hurricanes linebacker, Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens. Vilma says he's flattered, and both play the game in a fury and share a knack for making big hits.

"When we first drafted him, we knew we had a guy who had all the characteristics you look for from a player at the position -- the size, the speed, a passion for the game and the way he flies around," said Jets defensive coordinator Donnie Henderson. "It was just a matter of time and when he got the opportunity, he made the most of it."

Jets Coach Herman Edwards was equally effusive. "He's made rookie mistakes and that's part of the growing period," he said. "The great part about him is he's played a lot of football his rookie season, and that's only going to help him and this football team. He's been pretty consistent all the way through. His athletic ability is something that when we drafted him, we knew he'd bring that to the table. He's been a very, very solid performer for us and he's only going to get better."

In the Jets' regular season finale against the St. Louis Rams last weekend, Vilma made a critical interception of a tipped Marc Bulger pass and a dazzling 38-yard return for his first touchdown as a professional. The Jets eventually lost in overtime, but as Henderson said afterward: "That's was one of those plays where you're just in awe. All you can do is say, 'Wow!' "

Lewis also has been impressed, but hardly surprised, by Vilma's success because he helped tutor Vilma at the position whenever he paid a visit to Miami. "It was always that I would help Jonathan and tell him what to do," Lewis said before the Ravens played the Jets in mid-November. "A lot of people said he was small, and they said that, too, when I came out. But just do what you do."

Vilma finished the season as the Jets' second-leading tackler with 116, and had three games with double figures in tackles, including a season-high 14 in a November loss to Buffalo. He had three interceptions, two sacks and a fumble recovery, and also relayed defensive calls from the sideline to his teammates on the field, a significant responsibility for any defender, let alone a rookie.

Henderson said Vilma has learned his defense as well as anyone on the field and has the freedom to call audibles and line stunts if he sees something in an opposing offense that calls for an adjustment by his defense. At a minicamp in May, Henderson taught him to call an audible when the offense was in a certain coverage. Three months later in a preseason game, Vilma impressed his coaches when he saw a similar coverage and made the call with no prompting from the sideline.

Vilma graduated in four years from Miami, made the academic all-American team and has a degree in finance. He's now pondering whether to apply to law school or go for an advanced degree in finance in the offseason. He also studied German from the third grade on and is fluent, the better to communicate with cousins who live in Germany.

Though Miami's football program is best known for producing more athletes than scholars, Vilma said he was always encouraged by his coaches to take a full academic load, and frequently was allowed to arrive late for film study or weight room sessions because of class conflicts.

"They knew I was serious about my studies," he said. "A lot of guys I played with graduated on time. If you wanted to do it, you could. That was always very important to me, and the coaches all knew it. It was never a problem."

By game time tonight, Vilma will already have studied miles of tape on the Chargers and LaDainian Tomlinson, a versatile running back he will have to help contain. He said the atmosphere before his first postseason game as a professional has been very much like playing for the national championship his junior year, when Ohio State won a classic title game against the Hurricanes.

"It's about the same," he said. "You try to approach it as just another game, but you know it's not. Whether it's college or the pros, you know that if you lose, you go home. Nobody around here wants to go home."

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