HEMPSTEAD, N.Y. -- One of the NFL's best young middle linebackers the past two seasons, with a résumé that already includes a defensive rookie of the year award in 2004 and a trip to the Pro Bowl for 2005, Jonathan Vilma acknowledged Tuesday that he was shaken from his comfort zone in the offseason by the news that the New York Jets had hired Eric Mangini as their head coach.
You get Mangini and, of course, you get the 3-4 defense. And for Vilma, a pure 4-3 middle linebacker for almost his entire football career, that meant learning a relatively new position.
Which, after a brief spell of feeling sorry for himself, Vilma attacked with his characteristic ardor.
"My first reaction?" said Vilma, when asked how he handled the news of Mangini's arrival. "Probably a little bit of frustration. You know, you do things a certain way for so long, they become second nature to you. Part of you doesn't want to give up something that's become familiar. It's human nature. Then, after thinking about it, I got excited by the [prospect] of learning a new defense, of taking on a new challenge."
And so, typically, Vilma, the Jets' first-round choice in 2004 after a stellar career at the University of Miami and arguably New York's best defensive player, threw himself into the learning process just as he has thrown himself in front of ball carriers his entire career.
Several months later, and nearly three weeks into training camp, Vilma still struggles on occasion with the new defensive alignment, but can tell you just about anything you want to know about the 3-4 scheme.
That's in part because, on hearing that Mangini had elevated incumbent linebackers assistant Bob Sutton to the post of defensive coordinator, Vilma phoned and requested that his position coach send him everything he could about the 3-4 defense.
"Tapes, the playbook, anything he had," Vilma recalled. "I wanted it all."
Among the learning materials that arrived in Vilma's mailbox were tapes from several New England games, specifically featuring the play of Patriots inside linebacker Tedy Bruschi. And how often did Vilma review those tapes? So often, he said, that the celluloid images sprinting across the monitor nearly rubbed off the tape. Vilma's self-tutoring program and his simple but unwavering philosophy -- if you're going to be the best at something, learn from the guy who already occupies that perch, then begin the ascent up the mountain -- has paid off.
Said Mangini: "He's picked it up quickly. He's got resiliency and flexibility. I think Jonathan would do just about anything you ask him to do."
To some fans, asking a player to move from 4-3 middle linebacker to inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense might not seem like such a challenging transition. But the two positions, although similarly named, do not necessarily share the same job description. Just ask Baltimore Ravens star Ray Lewis, a future Hall of Fame defender who chafed openly at having to play in a 3-4 after spending much of his celebrated NFL tenure as a middle linebacker.
Lewis wasn't nearly as productive in the 3-4 before Baltimore switched back to his familiar defense after two seasons. Part of that, the part with which Lewis still hasn't come to grips, is that he is a once dominant player who is now in decline. But part of it also was that Lewis never fully embraced the transition and took the move to the 3-4 almost as a personal affront.
In the 4-3 scheme, the middle linebacker is protected by two tackles in front of him and the aim is to keep bodies off him and allow him to run to the ball, sideline to sideline. But in a 3-4, the guards are uncovered and the inside linebackers have to take on blockers more often. Shedding blocks, disengaging quickly and finding the football -- priorities in any defensive scheme -- become even more imperative in the 3-4 front.
There was some skepticism around the league about whether Vilma, at 6-foot-1 and 230 pounds, a little undersized for the 3-4 inside position, could physically absorb the rigors of the new position. So far, that hasn't been a problem, as Vilma has compensated with solid techniques and by relying upon the same diagnostic skill set that made him so successful in the 4-3 scheme.
Playing the more familiar scheme in his first two NFL seasons, Vilma appeared in all 32 games, all but two of them as a starter. He registered 276 tackles, and unofficially led the league in stops in 2005, and had 2½ sacks, four interceptions, seven passes defensed, four forced fumbles and two recoveries. Even in the new defense, and probably still facing some rough spots as he continues to assimilate his role, Vilma figures to put up big numbers.
Not surprisingly, given his penchant for perfection, Vilma has picked up on the fine details that separate good 3-4 linebackers from very good ones. You've got to use your hands "longer," Vilma noted, keep them on the blocker until you can redirect him and move to the ball. You also, Vilma emphasized, have to play with even more discipline than the middle linebacker position entails.
"That's probably the most [ironic] thing," Vilma said. "Because people think that, since you're playing in a much more confined space, it's easier, that the responsibilities aren't as great. But the thing I found pretty quickly, by watching [Bruschi] on tape and then applying that to the field, is that you can't be good in this defense if you aren't disciplined in this defense. Disciplined and smart."
Vilma, 24, has never struggled in either of those departments. An excellent student at Miami, he graduated with a degree in finance. In a discussion about football after the Tuesday afternoon practice, Vilma interspersed a pithy synopsis of how to calculate the value of the dollar versus the Euro. The exchange rate by which he is more preoccupied, though, is the quickness with which he needs to get up to speed in the 3-4.
In that regard, well, so far, so good.
This is a rebuilding team, one that could struggle on both sides of the ball in 2006, one that will need Vilma to step up in a big way as a productive player and leader. On the defensive side, as evidenced by Tuesday's practice, there are some square pegs trying to fill round holes.
Thankfully for the Jets, Vilma is starting to fill holes with the same efficiency he displayed in the 4-3 front.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.