As a freshman in 2000, Vilma saw action in 11 of 12 games as a reserve middle linebacker. Hard to see much playing time when you're backing up future first round draft pick and 2000's Butkus, Nagurski and Bednarik Award winner Dan Morgan.
Still, Vilma made his presence felt with 38 tackles (29 solo) – 10 coming in his first game as a Cane, against McNeese State (08/31/00). Against Florida State, his four unassisted tackles let the Noles know he'd become the middle linebacker who would haunt them the next four meetings. At season's end he was named first-team Freshman All American by Rivals.com and the stage was set for next year.
In his sophomore season of 2001, Vilma took over the starting role at middle linebacker and never let up. He led the team with 79 tackles (54 solo) during the regular season, started in 11 of 12 games and ended the season first-team All Big East. A few memorable Vilma moments that season include a then career high 12 tackles against Troy State, a 36-yard fumble recovery for touchdown against Florida State, his lone career interception against Washington in the 65-7 revenge route and two bone crushing hits in the closing moments of the Rose Bowl game against Nebraska.
The breakout year came in 2002 - Vilma's junior season - as he became a vocal leader on defense and dominated on the field. Again he led the Canes in tackles – this time with 133 (75 solo) and took home first-team All-Big East Academic Team honors (for the second straight season) and was a Butkus Award finalist.
He had a career best outing against Florida State (10/12/02) with 20 tackles and 2 quarterback hurries, which may very well have been the difference in a 28-27 win over the Noles. Two weeks later, he netted 14 solo tackles against West Virginia (10/26/02) and put up double digits in total tackles in three of the final six outings. His 14 tackles against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl were a team best.
With three successful seasons under his belt, Jon Vilma could've taken his talents to the next level and left for the NFL a year early. A 24-1 record in two seasons as a starter, a member of the 2001 National Championship team, three straight BCS bowl games, a Butkus finalist, an Academic All-American and 2002 team captain – Vilma's collegiate career could be deemed a complete success to most. But not to him. With a bid for back to back National Championships halted by an untimely, unwarranted flag in a Fiesta Bowl overtime - #51's career would not end on a sour note. Post game, he gave his thoughts.
"Some people may fell we got robbed. Some people hurt… disappointed. Some people are lucky to come back next season so we can do it again – and this time, win it," said Vilma.
No dragging out the decision or testing the NFL waters for Vilma. Obviously he considered himself one of those "lucky" ones who could come back for another shot at a title so moments after Miami's championship game snub, he committed to returning for his senior season. No easy task as the 2002 Hurricanes sent 8 skilled athletes to the NFL – four of which were first round picks – absorbing big losses at quarterback, wide receiver, running back and most notably, defensive line.
Vilma's leadership in 2003 was unsurpassed. A top scholar and a finance major, #51 remained tops in the classroom and on the field. Again he was a Butkus Award, Nagurski Award, Big East Defensive Player of the Year and All-America candidate. He entered 2003 with the utmost respect of his teammates, coaches and opponents.
In Vilma's senior season, he shined on the brightest stage in the biggest games. His 12 tackles against Florida played a huge part in Miami's thrilling 38-33 comeback, in which the Gators were held scoreless for the contest's final 20 minutes of play.
Weeks later, it was a rain soaked affair in Tallahassee where Vilma put up 13 tackles against Florida State in a 22-14 Miami win. In both games against Florida schools, Vilma was the leading tackler. A tremendous feat considering the talent on both sides of the field when any of the state's ‘Big Three' go head to head.
Vilma's most impressive outing of the season came against Rutgers with a 16 tackle afternoon. His next best, 14 tackles in a defensive slugfest with Tennessee. Again in both outings, the leading tackler on the field.
In his final outing as a Miami Hurricane, Jon Vilma made it 5-0 against rival Florida State with a 16-14 victory in the 2004 Orange Bowl Classic. Vilma led all Canes with 9 tackles on the day – and a crucial fumble recovery. With Florida State driving late in the 3rd quarter, the drive was thwarted due to Vilma's heads up play – and in the end, his recovery may have been the difference between a 16-14 Miami win or a 17-16 loss.
With the draft just over a month away, Vilma continues to impress the scouts. Essentially every publication has him rated the top middle linebacker in this year's crop of athletes. He is projected as a mid to late first rounder – with the only question remaining who takes him – and where?
The New York Jets have the #12 pick and have expressed interest, as has New England (#21), Green Bay (#25), Philadelphia (#28), Indianapolis (#29) and Carolina (#31). The consensus is that Vilma is a perfect fit in a 3-4 defense. He's mildly undersized for middle linebacker in the NFL at 6'0" and 233 lbs. but brains, heart, work ethic and speed should make up the difference – and then some.
At Miami's Pro Day in late February, Vilma made the most of the experience. His 4.58 40-yard dash, 23 bench reps (at 225 lbs.), 10-foot-1 long jump and 37-inch long jump wowed the scouts. Shuttle times were 4.20 in the short, 11.48 in the long and 6.67 in the three cone drill. Not bad for a kid who made his way to Miami as the #83 prospect in the state of Florida in 2000.
"When I came to Miami at 195 pounds, I just wanted to play. I had no idea that I would leave with the possibility of being a first round pick," said Vilma.
With April 24th approaching fast, it's pretty safe to say that the "possibility" of being a first rounder is pretty much a guarantee for yet another talented Miami linebacker preparing to elevate his game to the next level.
Born and raised in Miami, FL and a CanesTime.com columnist since 1996, Chris Bello now resides in San Diego, CA. Feel free to send your comments or to contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org