Vilma Shrugs Off Size Concerns

Maybe, size would really matter in a dark-alley brawl in the middle of the night or a melee in the county jail cafeteria. But should it be such a big concern with a football player that has already proven otherwise on more than one occasion? Such is the case with former University of Miami All-America linebacker Jonathan Vilma.

While he has never had to fight his way out of trouble anywhere Vilma can't seem to shake off the same old question. And as he prepares to take the biggest leap of his athletic career the question has once again come to the forefront.

Does he have the size to play professional football? Vilma just shrugs it off.

"I'm not concerned at all," said Vilma, considered one of the top linebackers entered in the 2004 NFL draft who is expected to be a mid-to-late first-round selection. "Everybody said I was small in high school and college so it's no different. I'm just going about my business the same way. I can't change a thing at this point."

Why should he?

Vilma has virtually done everything possible to erase any lingering doubts about his lack of size. And anybody who faced the Hurricanes during the past four seasons would agree. Vilma, who played in a reserved role as a freshman behind current pro Dan Morgan, was part of 46 victories in 50 games for the Hurricanes from 2000-2003.

He led the Hurricanes in tackles in his final three seasons at the school, including a career-high 133 in 2002, and collected a National Championship ring to boot. But more importantly, Vilma became the unquestioned leader of the defensive unit during his tenure at UM thanks to his ability to sniff out plays before they developed. Vilma, one of the brightest Hurricane players ever, was more than just another player on the field.

Just ask UM coach Larry Coker.

"Jonathan may not be winning any body-building contest or foot races, but it's hard to imagine many smarter players out there," says Coker. "He just has a nose for the ball, so I'm not worried about how big or fast he is. The bottom line is the kid just makes plays."

Vilma may not be loading up the barbell in the weight room. However despite an eye-opening physique the 6-0, 230-pounder has impressed numerous NFL scouts with his instincts and awareness of what's going on at all times on the field. The early-returns on Vilma are usually reserved for veterans: very intelligent; quick thinker; instinctive player who recognizes things immediately.

"I pride myself on being prepared, one step ahead of the opposition," says Vilma. "If that means I need to spend half a day in the film room so be it."

That's music to the ears of NFL personnel. So, while Vilma could encounter problems bringing down the likes of Jamaal Lewis and Priest Holmes with one blow, he makes up for it with excellent run and pass coverage skills - not to mention a load of smarts.

That's the main reason Vilma is projected to be gone anywhere from No. 12-25 in Round 1, while there is also an outside chance he could sneak into the Top-10. In a year when there are only a hand full of quality of linebackers to chose from, Vilma is highly thought of in many drafting circles.

Vilma's stock has rapidly increased in the last several months based on his ability to read and react. Sporting News.com has Vilma being selected 23rd overall in the first-round by the Seattle Seahawks, who are looking to replace Randall Godfrey.

ESPN.com has Vilma going between No. 17-21, while James Atler of About.com projects that the Denver Broncos could snag Vilma with the No.24 pick in Round 1. Ian Gold and John Mobley, both starting linebackers for the Broncos, are coming-off season-ending injuries.

"Here's one of those kids who doesn't really blow you way in terms of being a great athlete, but he's so far ahead of the game it's amazing," said NFL draft analysis Mel Kiper, Jr. "Jon reminds me a lot of a guy like Zach Thomas. Not big, not especially fast yet he just finds a way to get it done on the football field."

The whispers about his lack of started in high school the minute Vilma was fitted for a helmet at Coral Gables High. Could a kid that barely cracked the scales at 185 pounds as a prep freshman handle the constant pounding of the game? Yet he would go to become a four-year starter, and along the way setting a school-record for solo tackles with 109 as a senior.

Vilma will likely end up playing on the outside in a 4-3 scheme or could be used at multiple positions in a 3-4 defense. Still, one thing is certain: Vilma will be out to prove size really doesn't matter.

Top of the Line

The following is a sampling of LBs available in the 2004 NFL Draft.

DJ Williams, Miami, 6-1 240
Superb athlete who plays sideline to sideline; how quick he picks up defense he's in will be key in the pros.

Jonathan Vilma, Miami, 6-0 230
A player filled with smarts who plays the run and pass very well; size could be only question on where he plays.

Karlos Dansby, Auburn, 6-3 231
Great speed, pass rushing skills; Could play any of the LB spots if he beefs up.

Michael Boulware, FSU 6-2 225
Another outstanding athlete who plays pass and run well; only down-side could be tackling ability.

Where could they land?

Williams: Could be the perfect fit for the Jets with the 12th overall selection; The Jets have weeded out the old - Mo. Lewis and Marvin Jones - and Williams wouldn't be a bad way to start stocking up again.

Vilma: With Ian Gold and John Mobley coming off season-ending injuries, the Denver Broncos just might be the right situation at No. 24 in the first round. Seattle - with the 23rd pick - could beat the Broncos to the punch in an effort to replace Randall Godfrey.

Dansby: The word is Dallas is taking a serious look at this kid. Dansby has the ability to start right away, but will need to put on weight.

Boulware: Late first-rounder, early second-rounder? The Dolphins could use some help in adding depth to their LBs unit.

Worth A Look

Teddy Lehman, Oklahoma
Keyaron Fox, Georgia Tech
Kendryll Pope, FSU
Roderick Green, Central Missouri State

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