Jonathan Vilma puts on his Hall of Fame jacket for a photo session at the UM Sports Hall of Fame induction ceremony at Jungle Island in April 2015. Vilma, a former All-American linebacker at UM and NFL Pro Bowler, was promoted to ABC’s college football studio this summer after working on ESPN2 studio shows last season.
Former UM star Vilma, promoted to ABC job, assesses UM and one Cane he’s watching closely
BY BARRY JACKSON
August 27, 2018 05:37 PM
Updated August 27, 2018 05:54 PM
The Hurricanes will have a big supporter speaking on national television at halftime of Sunday’s UM-LSU game – even if he’s not supposed to show it.
Jonathan Vilma impressed ESPN executives so much as an ESPN2 studio analyst last season that network executives promoted him to ABC’s college football studio this season, alongside former Texas coach Mack Brown and host Kevin Negandhi.
Those three will be in studio during ABC’s coverage all season, including the Hurricanes-LSU game at 7:30 p.m Sunday on ABC.
“I love seeing Miami do well and play well,” said Vilma, who was a first-team All American as a senior Hurricanes linebacker in 2003 before a 10-year NFL career that included three Pro Bowl appearances.
“The problem in talking about Miami is you have some fans who assume I can’t be objective. I can be very objective about Miami because I love Miami. I can tell you the good, bad or ugly about them.”
Vilma, in a phone conversation last week, said UM’s No. 8 preseason ranking in the AP poll “is accurate when you look at the guys returning, the schedule and the way Miami won early on last season. You can argue about the tough losses they had at the end. We know how good Clemson is. Wisconsin is a good team. They had the one hiccup against Pittsburgh, but Clemson had a loss at Syracuse.
“There are a lot of positives. Look at the linebacker crew. The offensive line is stronger. Malik Rosier has a year under his belt.”
With Rosier, Vilma said it’s about managing expectations.
“Rosier can perform as needed,” Vilma said. “Having [better] guys around him should do him a lot of good. He won a lot of games and at times was inaccurate. But what I look at is what were we expecting from him? Expectations of Rosier need to be tempered by fans and media.”
His concern with this roster? “Depth at defensive tackle,” he said. “Especially the way [defensive coordinator] Manny Diaz likes to play, they go 100 miles per hour. They play hard as hell and they get tired. There may be talent dropoff when you bring in second or third-team guys.”
Vilma and fellow former Canes linebackers Jon Beason and D.J. Williams have maintained a close relationship with UM junior linebackers Shaquille Quarterman, Mike Pinckney and Zach McCloud.
Here’s how Vilma handles the communication among them:
“During the offseason, I am there working out [and helping with] any little thing they want to get better at - shedding blockers -whatever it is, I help them out during the offseason. I try to take a little step back during the season because I don’t want them to overcomplicate what I am telling them and [cause confusion] with what coaches are telling them.
“My texts to them during the season are [along the lines of] ‘Hey, good luck,’ or I will show them an effort play” that one of them made.
Of the three junior linebackers, Vilma sees McCloud as the one with the most room for growth.
“I really look at Zach McCloud because he’s the most athletic of the three and I told him that,” Vilma said. “I told him, ‘You are the most athletic, tallest, have the biggest frame, have the biggest range.’ I would love to see you go out and perform to that ability. I look forward to watching him. I think Shaq and Pinckney are very close to their potential, but haven’t maximized it [fully] yet. Zach is further down and isn’t close to reaching it because of his talent.”
Does Vilma know yet what he will advise the three linebackers if they seek input after the season about whether to turn pro?
“If you are a legitimate first round pick, I say go,” he said. “If you are not, you have to weigh, ‘Do you have the ability to be a legitimate first round pick if you stay?’ If yes, I would suggest staying.”
None of the three linebackers at this point are projected as first-round picks, but that could change.
Meanwhile, Vilma’s TV career continues to ascend after joining ESPN2 in 2016, a year after he was inducted into the UM Sports Hall of Fame. Besides the promotion to ABC’s studio – where he replaces new Monday Night Football field analyst Booger McFarland – Vilma, 36, also will have a greatly increased presence on SportsCenter and other ESPN programs as part of a new multi-year contract.
“Jon is incredibly smart and says what he believes,” said Lee Fitting, ESPN’s vice president of production. “Those key traits, combined with his admirable work ethic – which made him one of the best players on one of the best college teams ever – have developed him into a prominent and respected voice in his short time at ESPN.”
Vilma, who attended Coral Gables High and was the 12th overall pick of the 2004 draft (by the Jets), will try to somewhat conceal his Canes sentiments in ABC’s studio Sunday.
“The UM in me is very excited [about this season],” he said. “This is a good team. Look at the talent they have.”
▪ Diaz, incidentally, said: “We have to give credit to DJ, Vilma and Beason. Those older guys have taken an interest in communicating all the time with those three [Quarterman, Pinckney, McCloud].
“To get critiqued by those guys every day takes a little level of courage also. You may not want to hear about what Jon Beason says about your game or if there’s something he didn’t like about you on film. You feel good about yourself and all of a sudden here comes an All-American calling saying that’s not nearly good enough.”