It's only just begun

They brought a big smile to the face of their former high school coach as he sat and watched them help bring a national championship back home. "They made me feel like a proud father," said Coral Gables High Football coach Joe Montoya. Montoya might not be done feeling satisfied. Thanks to Jonathan Vilma and Frank Gore.

Both Vilma and Gore, former standouts at Gables under Montoya, were key members of the University of Miami Hurricanes football team that culminated their season with the school's fifth national title as a result of a 37-14 victory over Nebraska and are vital parts of the team¹s immediate future.

Vilma, who made instant contributions as a freshman backing up current Carolina Panthers linebacker Dan Morgan, gave a national television audience and 93,720 Rose Bowl attendees a little preview of the future in the middle at UM with nine tackles, including three for losses, and a sack against the Cornhuskers. Vilma went out in style delivering two crushing tackles in the last five minutes of the game, including one on Nebraska running back Dahrran Diedrick.

"To be able to watch both of those kids have such an impact was tremendous," Montoya said. "To have the confidence in Jon to call defensive plays all year long and see him come through the way he did made me proud."

"I wanted to make a statement and leave no doubt after what happened last year," said Vilma. "We had something to prove to everybody."

Vilma made sure he was involved from start to finish.

After being shelved in the early part of spring practice with a knee injury, Vilma earned back his starting middle linebacker spot in training camp. The 6-2, 211-pounder never looked back.

For all of Edward Reed's interceptions, Phillip Buchanon's jamming of receivers and Vince Wolfork's pressure, it was Vilma who had a team-leading 80 tackles. The Cavaliers grad also provided one of the Hurricanes signature moments of the season with a 16-yard interception return off quarterback Chris Rix in the second half of the Hurricanes 49-27 victory over Florida State in Tallahassee. Vilma underlined the play by diving into the endzone, reminiscent of Zach Thomas' scores of the past.

Vilma's final numbers weren't spectacular, but he maintained a level of consistency throughout the entire year. Vilma had a personal-best 12 tackles in a 38-7 victory over Troy State and was huge in the win against the Seminoles with nine stops.

Vilma also had 10 tackles against Temple and added eight in a 59-0 blanking of Syracuse. He intercepted a Cody Pickett pass and returned it 13 yards against Washington to set up the Hurricanes first touchdown in a 65-7 rout.

"This season has been a dream come true," Vilma said. "I'm stilling to trying to come down from it all."

As a freshman, straight out of high school in 2000, Vilma had 38 tackles and stepped right in with 10 tackles in the season-opener against McNeese State after Morgan left the game feeling ill.

"Jonathan Vilma just makes plays. You don't have to worry about too much when he¹s in there," said UM coach Larry Coker, after the Hurricanes victory over the Seminoles earlier this season.

With the this year¹s starting secondary (Reed, Buchanon, James Lewis and Mike Rumph) and linebacker Chris Campbell all gone, all eyes will center on Vilma as the unquestioned defensive leader heading into next season. The quiet and well-mannered wrecking ball could be in line for the Butkus Award and sky-rocket into the public eye as one of the nation¹s premier linebackers.

"Without a doubt, Jon has that opportunity. Just talking to Coach Shannon (defensive coordinator) I know they're really hoping for big things out of Jon," said Montoya. "They do have concerns about him lasting 12-13 games."

For that reason, Montoya said Vilma would have to work extra hard in the weight room this off-season if he is to become that special players the Hurricanes crave for. Adding a few more pounds will be crucial.

"Jon eats right and takes good care of himself, but I'm going to talk to him and makes sure he dedicates himself even more in the weight room."

Gore's inclusion in the Hurricanes gameplan for the Rose Bowl was minimal. But come next summer that might also change. Gore had an impressive freshman season with 562 yards and five touchdowns and had the Hurricanes third highest single-season rushing total in school history for a freshman ever in a limited role behind starter Clinton Portis.

But with Portis opting to leave a year early for the NFL, Gore could rise to stardom sooner than expected. Portis exiting means Gore is likely to be the starting running back heading into training camp this summer. Willis McGahee is the only other running back currently on the roster that could alter those plans.

He better be prepared for a battle from the odd-defying kid from Coconut Grove.

Gore set a UM freshman mark with 9.1 yards per rush this past season and along the way gave the Big East Conference a warning on what is yet to come.

Gore gave Rutgers a glimpse with an early-season 78 yards on six carries and a touchdown in a blowout of the Scarlet Knights.

A few weeks later, Gore really emerged with 124 yards on six carries, which came in the second half against an outgunned Mountaineers' defense. Two of the runs, a 49 and 47-yarder, both went for touchdowns as Gore showed the ability to change directions and breakaway speed in both plays. Gore put together a career-day in the win against Syracuse with 153 yards on 11 carries and also had 86 yards rushing and a touchdown against Temple.

Not to compare the two at this stage of Gore¹s development, but Coker put his future jewel in the same sentence with Barry Sanders a day after watching him tear though the West Virginia defense.

Asked who Gore reminded him of, Coker said former Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders. Gore, who has exceptional power for a player his size, didn't take long to show off his instinctive runner.

"His ability to see the entire the field and react so quickly is something Barry was capable of as a freshman at Oklahoma State," said Coker, who coached Sanders and Thurman Thomas while a Oklahoma State assistant from 1983-89.

Gore might be knocking on the door as college football's next premier running back and might have the potential to climb into the Heisman Trophy before long. Although, attention is nothing Gore is a stranger too.

One of the most highly recruited players coming out of high school, Gore set a Dade County record for rushing yards in a season in 2000 with 2,953 yards and 34 touchdowns in his senior season. In 1999, Gore rushed for 1,559 yards and 28 touchdowns and added 301 yards receiving and four more scores.

Several months after his game as a Cavalier, Gore had his jersey retired in a ceremony in the school auditorium.

"I never imagined this," said Gore, at the time. Gore, who choose Miami over Mississippi at the last minute, is already a winner in the minds of many after getting into the University of Miami.

Despite suffering from a disability that alters his comprehension was able to get through high school and qualify to attend Miami. According to Montoya, several UM coaches told him that Gore maintained a 3.0 grade-point-average through his first year in school.

At one point in high school, Montoya wasn¹t even sure his team's best player would make it through all four years. Through extensive tutoring and plenty of after school hours, Gore was able to overcome.

"That kid has been through so much and fought so much that I love him like a son," Montoya said. "Good things happen to good people and Frank is certainly on his way."

But Montoya also wants to have a little chat with him.

"I want to speak with Frank because he tends to be a very emotional kid and doesn't eat right when things aren't going right," Montoya said. "He definitely needs to take better care of his body and put bulk up. He will be that much more of a weapon."

The Hurricanes are certainly hoping Gore listens up.

Canes Time Top Stories