'Canes need big game from Vilma

Originally Published: October 8, 2003
By Bruce Feldman | ESPN The Magazine

You know the saying -- speed kills. Although if you ask Miami opponents, sometimes the Hurricanes' great speed can actually backfire.

In the past year, word has gotten around that your best bet in beating the 'Canes is to spread them out, and then run at them. Last Thursday West Virginia gashed Miami for 170 rushing yards and almost knocked off UM. The Mountaineers had success with some misdirection, and found, as most teams have when Miami has struggled, that the 'Canes have a tendency to get overzealous and blow assignments.

"They really close fast," says WVU TB Kay-Jay Harris. "But sometimes they don't realize they're actually hurting themselves."

Harris, a speedy 240-pounder who piled up 234 total yards against UM, says he and teammate Quincy Wilson believed Miami would have problems if they got their shoulders square and attacked.

Against FSU Saturday, Miami will see an even bigger back in Greg Jones. Meaning the pressure on how well Miami plays up the middle will be crucial, putting the pressure squarely on the 'Canes' big DTs, led by Vince Wilfork, and their MLB Jon Vilma.

Thus far this season, the jury is out on the Miami defense. One rival coach had this assessment: "They're overrated. They have a very simple scheme and sometimes they don't execute very well. You do see some plays that are right off SportsCenter, but if you watch enough of them, you realize these guys aren't very sound. I think you line right up and challenge them."

In fairness to Vilma, he missed all of fall camp and was just shaking off some rust when Miami played Florida in the second game of the season. The next game, against Boston College, Vilma only had five tackles, but three of those were behind the line and since that game was a blowout, he didn't see as much action.

Last season, Vilma had 20 tackles against FSU, but it was hardly a stellar performance by the UM defense. FSU rolled to 296 rushing yards, with most of the damage being done by Jones. The powerhouse 'Nole TB is back this season for FSU, and now he has some added support from a pair of shifty speedbacks Leon Washington and Lorenzo Booker. Not to mention QB Chris Rix also adds a dangerous dimension with his own wheels.

But the real game within the game could shape up as Vilma vs. Jones. Even though the 223-pound Vilma is giving up quite a bit of size, don't underestimate him. Much has been made about him being an honor student and being fluent in German, but he also has as much big-game experience as any linebacker in college. His breakout game happened in the 2002 Rose Bowl when he made two thunderous picture-perfect form tackles against Nebraska.

UM linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves says he doesn't think Vilma needs to have 15 tackles for the 'Canes to win, but he does need to be Miami's spark. "The other guys feed off his energy," says Hargreaves. "And if the defensive linemen see him making plays, they're gonna keep getting pressure and penetration."

Maybe almost as important could be the presence Vilma has in the locker room right before kickoff. This Miami team is still trying to find its identity. "In 2001, this was Ed Reed's team. Period," says former UM center Don Bailey Jr., now a radio color analyst in Miami. " Last year, it was Kenny Dorsey's team. Whose team is this?"

Miami hopes to have an answer for that Saturday.

Random Notes

  • With all the talk about how this might be the year a pure wideout wins the Heisman, it's interesting that a stud tailback is getting lost in the shuffle. Yes, we still think that Larry Fitzgerald and Rashaun Woods should be on top of the list right now along with Jason White, but how about some props for Oregon State's Steven Jackson?

    Jackson is second in the nation in rushing, averaging 146 yards, and 5-1 Oregon State is 2-0 in the Pac-10 for the first time since 1968. The only thing slowing Jackson down is the time difference. Next week when the Beavers face Washington, it will be their fifth game starting AFTER 7 p.m, making it tougher for East Coast media to keep up with him. The scouts, however, know all about Jackson. "He's, by far, the best player I've seen this season," says one West Coast based NFL scout. "He's strong and fast and explosive and he breaks tackles. He's the prototype pro back."

  • In hopes of charging up a dormant pass rush, South Carolina (9th in the SEC in sacks) will shift former huge LB recruit Ricardo Hurley to DE in passing situations while DE George Gause recovers from a knee injury.

  • K-State appears to have found another quality linebacker. Last Saturday, sophomore Ted Sims, a 6-foot-1, 230-pound former prep shot put champ, jumped in when starter Matt Butler was injured late in the first quarter against Texas and immediately made an impact, finishing with a team-best 14 tackles and also notching two sacks.

  • Last Friday Utah knocked off Oregon and it should serve as a wake-up call to anyone who hasn't heard of Utes coach Urban Meyer. He did wonders with QB Josh Harris at Bowling Green with his unique spread/option hybrid. Meyer's guys in Utah are still learning it. But the stat to keep an eye on are for the rest for the season are the Utes' big-play touchdowns. At this point only six of their 17 TDs have come from plays over 10 yards. Expect that to change now that they have much of his offense in. Against the Ducks they had 11 plays of at least 10 yards.

  • Best accomplishment that's somehow been overlooked? South Florida, a team that started playing college football in the Clinton administration has somehow won 21 consecutive home games (second only to Miami, which has 25 straight victories at the Orange Bowl).

    Bruce Feldman covers college football for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at bruce.feldman@espnmag.com.