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ALL Business Miami puts its defensive fortune in the hands of middle linebacker and finance student Jonathan Vilma

Aug. 11, 2003
Aug. 11, 2003

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Aug. 11, 2003

College Football 2003

ALL Business Miami puts its defensive fortune in the hands of middle linebacker and finance student Jonathan Vilma

Miami, as many envious coaches will tell you, boasts more than its
share of unusually swift, physically imposing athletes. The
Hurricanes' top defensive player, however, is no such specimen.
As a 6-foot, 215-pound junior last season, middle linebacker
Jonathan Vilma was not only smaller than the outside backers who
flanked him, D.J. Williams and Roger McIntosh, but also
undersized compared with 11 of the 13 starting middle linebackers
Miami faced. During workouts this spring Vilma ran the 40 in 4.6
seconds, trailing every defensive starter with the exception of
the linemen. While discussing his career in a Miami athletic
department office on a recent afternoon, Vilma looked more like a
casually dressed graduate assistant than the team's most fearsome
tackler. "D.J. and Roger are both big guys and phenomenal
athletes," says Vilma, who with Williams, a senior, and McIntosh,
a sophomore, make up possibly the nation's most talented set of
linebackers. "They're the brawn of this operation--which, I
guess, makes me the brain."

This is an article from the Aug. 11, 2003 issue Original Layout

A finance major with a 3.5 grade-point average, Vilma was one of
10 Hurricanes among the 69 players named to the Big East's
All-Academic team. He made dean's list each of the past three
years, the conference All-Academic first team the past two years
and the Verizon Academic All-America team last year. This fall
he'll take a foreign language elective in German ("just to brush
up," says Vilma, who is nearly fluent in the language) while
pursuing opponents like a German shepherd.

"Many athletes don't take their schoolwork seriously, but Jon is
exceptional," says Jose Romero-Simpson, a lecturer in Miami's
department of management. Last spring he taught a class called
Advanced Organizational Behavior, in which Vilma earned an A.
"He's always prepared, he's very analytical, and he has wonderful
interpersonal skills. In group projects he got the best out of
people. I have to imagine he takes a little of that to the
football field."

Indeed, advanced organizational behavior is an apt description of
Vilma's gift on the gridiron. Since he inherited the starting
middle linebacker job two seasons ago from Dan Morgan, the
school's alltime career tackles leader (532), Vilma has been the
nerve center of one of the nation's top defenses. In addition to
leading the Hurricanes in tackles for the last two seasons,
running his career total to 250, Vilma has called the defensive
signals for a unit that allowed just 270.9 yards in 2001 (sixth
best in the country) and 285.0 yards in '02 (seventh). Before
each snap he can be seen scurrying between the defensive front
and the secondary, nodding, waving and shouting directions to
teammates like a no-nonsense traffic cop. "The guy's intelligence
is expressed in that he rarely puts himself or his players in a
bad position," says Boston College offensive coordinator Dana
Bible, who watched Vilma return a fumble for a touchdown against
his team in a 38-6 Miami win last fall. "He clearly understands
angles and leverage, because he plays at full speed most of the
time."

Ohio State offensive coordinator Jim Bollman says that a month of
film study and other preparation for last season's national
championship game against Miami did not fully prepare the
Buckeyes for Vilma. "He's not the biggest guy, not the fastest
guy, but he's a hard guy to predict," says Bollman. "He makes
quick adjustments and virtually no mental mistakes."

A middle linebacker's judgment is particularly vital at Miami,
where defensive players are expected to make an unusually large
number of quick decisions. Bucking the trend of using multiple
defenses to counter increasingly sophisticated offenses,
defensive coordinator Randy Shannon rarely deviates from his 4-3
set, partly because he trusts his players to make the correct
last-second adjustments. But most of all he's secure in the
knowledge that his defensive signal-caller has the smarts to
determine what those adjustments should be and communicate them.
"We like to get our players' heads in the game," says Shannon,
"but because the big guys on the line get tired fast, you don't
want to strain them mentally. That puts pressure on your middle
linebacker. You've got to have a guy in there who can think."

Raised in Coral Gables, Fla., by his parents, Fritz, an
accountant, and Nelly, a social worker, Jonathan was constantly
urged to strive intellectually, if not athletically. "Mom and Dad
both came from very educated families in Haiti, where being an
athlete wasn't a pathway to a successful life," says Jonathan's
only sibling, Alice, 24, who graduated from Miami in three years
and is now a strategic planner for educational lender SallieMae.
"We were allowed to play sports, but academics were stressed."
Jonathan remembers the typical response from his mother after
games at Coral Gables High, where he had a school-record 109 solo
tackles as a senior: "She'd ask whether we'd won or lost and how
I played, and then she'd say, 'Have you done your homework?'"

In his early days with the Hurricanes, Vilma might have made the
mistake of thinking too much. A 190-pound wisp next to his fellow
linebackers as a freshman, Vilma was determined to show that he
was the sharpest newcomer on the defense. His ability to process
and retain information earned him the job of backup to Morgan
that year, but at times he was guilty of overthinking. "Dan told
me to watch my opponents' eyes, and I got a little carried away
with that," he says. "I remember one play when I thought, The
tailback is looking to the right, which probably means he'll go
to the right; or maybe he knows I'm watching and will go the
other way; or maybe he knows that I know he's tricking me.... By
the time I had gotten to the fourth scenario, the kid was gone."

Even now linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves would like Vilma to
trust his instincts more, but as the coach says, "You'd much
rather have the problem of the middle guy thinking too much than
not at all." According to Hargreaves, Williams "will test better
[in conditioning drills] and run faster [than Vilma], but when
you're coaching, Jon is the one you want. You have to tell him
only once. And you'd better get your facts straight because if
you don't he'll let you know that you'd said otherwise at 9:03
last Tuesday."

Game sense and preparation aren't the only reasons Vilma has
earned a spot alongside Morgan, Michael Barrow and Ray Lewis in
the pantheon of Miami middle linebackers. He also has the innate
toughness required of the position. "He hits harder than you'd
expect from looking at him," says Virginia Tech quarterback Bryan
Randall, who needed three stitches after Vilma bloodied his lip
on a ferocious tackle last year. Adds Miami strength coach Andreu
Swasey, whose nickname for Vilma is Pocket Hercules, "No one
squeezes more out of what God's given him than Jon." With
Swasey's help, Vilma has increased his squat lift from 365 pounds
as a freshman to 500 pounds this spring and knocked .3 of a
second off his first-year 40 time of 4.91. Vilma has also put on
13 pounds since last year, weighing in this spring at 228.

Some pro scouts think Vilma is too small to go high in the 2004
NFL draft, but Carolina Panthers linebackers coach Sam Mills
knows big things can come in small packages. Says Mills, whose
heady play during a 15-year pro career more than compensated for
his 5'9", 232-pound frame, "You don't have to be big to make it
in the NFL. You just have to play big." Mills adds that the
league loves guys who can pick up systems and get on the field
right away.

In the unlikely event that his NFL aspirations aren't realized,
Vilma will adjust. Every morning over breakfast he reads The
Miami Herald business section, taking note of stocks he "likes to
track, just for practice." This summer, in between lifting,
running and taking courses, he interned part time in the client
wealth management division of investment house Lehman Brothers in
Miami. "I want to be able to play football because I love it, not
because I depend on it to make a living," says Vilma. "I'd like
to be in the league for the next 20 years, but if that doesn't
happen I'll have a backup strategy." Not surprisingly, one of
college football's brightest players has a smart game plan.

COLOR PHOTO: STEVE MITCHELL/AP THAT SMARTS Vilma isn't the biggest, strongest or fastest defender on the Hurricanes, but plenty of quarterbacks have felt his sting.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY MICHAEL O'NEILL [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN BAHR/GETTY IMAGES (LEFT)COLOR PHOTO: GREG FIUME /NEWSPORT SPOILER Against Rutgers, Vilma's savvy helped turn a potential upset into a Miami rout.COLOR DIAGRAM: DIAGRAM BY JOE ZEFF

A Day in the Life

For players like Jonathan Vilma--a finance major, with a minor in
management, and captain of the Miami defense--college indulgences
such as sleeping in and hanging out with buddies don't fit into
the schedule during football season. Here's how a typical Tuesday
went for Vilma last fall.

5:30 a.m. Wake up, dress, read over lecture or test material
6:45 Big breakfast, usually eggs, cereal, oatmeal
7:00-7:45 Defensive team meeting
8:00-9:00 Weight training
9:00-9:25 Shower, snack
9:25-10:40 Class (300 or 400 level)
10:50-12:05 p.m. Class (300 or 400 level)
12:05 Lunch
1:00-2:00 Media interview
2:00-3:15 Meeting and film study of previous week's game
3:15-5:20 Suit up and practice
5:30-5:45 Shower and change
5:45 Study film of next opponent, discuss strategy with
linebackers unit
6:30-7:15 Dinner with teammates
7:30-9:00 Homework
9:00-9:30 Study playbook
9:30-10:30 Review course work
11:00 Lights out

Disruption by Design
How all that studying during the week pays off when Saturday comes

Every team installs new plays during the week leading up to a
game. The key is whether the players are able to learn their
assignments by Saturday and then execute properly. One reason for
the recent dominance of the Miami defense is middle linebacker
Jonathan Vilma's ability to quickly absorb X's and O's and
complete his assignment to perfection. Case in point: Tight End
Fire, a play drawn up by the defense for last year's game at
Rutgers. Here's linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves's description
of the play and Vilma's role in it.

"Tight End Fire is a blitz out of our nickel package with this
twist: If the running back is in motion, that triggers Jon [51]
to cut through the open gap for a sack. It requires a middle
linebacker who is not only quick but also understands exactly
when and how to blitz. Jon, with his ability to read and execute,
fits the bill. We introduced the play to the guys on the
Wednesday before the Rutgers game, and it worked pretty much to
perfection near the start of the second quarter: The tailback
moved and Jon exploded, forcing the quarterback to throw the ball
away before getting hit."