[Jets] Rookie Vilma's veteran flair earning raves
Jets' linebacker a big hit
BY KRISTIE ACKERT
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Jonathan Vilma stands tall over rookie competition.
Sometimes it is hard to still think of Jonathan Vilma as a rookie. The middle linebacker has been such a crucial part of the Jets' defense that sometimes you forget he is a 22-year-old trying to make his way through his first NFL season.
He's in charge of calling off the checks for the Jets' improved defense. He's also won the coveted black jersey, given to defensive players by the coaches for hard work in practice, and is considered a favorite to win the NFL's defensive rookie of the year award.
That's why his teammates seem to want to remind him of his status all too often.
"But make sure you tell everyone who got the black jersey first," defensive end Shaun Ellis said with a dismissive flick of Vilma's jersey. "Rookie."
There have been a few rookie moments for Vilma, but heading into the last regular-season game, he has exceeded the Jets' expectations. Vilma took over as the starter in the third game when Sam Cowart injured his knee.
Vilma's speed and agility made an obvious impact. Tomorrow, as the Jets play at St. Louis hoping to play their way into the playoffs, it will be Vilma helping lead the way against the Rams.
"They are playing for the playoffs, I expect them to throw everything at us, vertical, horizontal," Vilma said. "They have a lot of options, so I have to be ready."
The Jets have no doubts he is ready. He has handled almost everything thrown at him.
"He's made rookie mistakes and that's part of the growing period - the process of what you have to go through as a young player," Herman Edwards said. "I think he'll get better. The great part about him is he's played a lot of football in his rookie season. It's going to help him and it's going to help the football team."
With 101 tackles, Vilma is 20th in the league. He also has two sacks and one fumble recovery.
"He's been pretty much consistent all the way through," Edwards said. "I think, obviously, his athletic ability is something that when we drafted him (out of Miami) we knew he'd bring that to the table. I just think his consistency and how he got better as the season went along - he's been a very, very solid performer for us and he's going to get better as time goes on."
Edwards also said Vilma's experience at Miami helped him this year. Vilma said he learned how to prepare and take care of his body while playing with the Hurricanes. He also had a chance to play in big games.
"This week is a lot like the national championship games, the intensity, the attention," Vilma said. "That is (the experience) I am drawing on right now. It feels a lot like that."
And it feels comfortable to Vilma. He has loved his first NFL season, appreciates being on a winning team and is looking forward to his first playoff experience. He also cherishes the black jersey he was awarded and is looking for one more accomplishment to complete his season.
"The defensive rookie of the year award is nice and all, but I will prefer a Super Bowl ring," Vilma said to the approval of the veterans listening. "A black jersey and a Super Bowl ring, that's a good first season."
Originally published on January 1, 2005