Vikings might have gotten ‘a big steal’ in athletic, undrafted edge rusher Luiji Vilain
By CHRIS TOMASSON | firstname.lastname@example.org | Pioneer Press
PUBLISHED: May 9, 2022 at 9:47 a.m. | UPDATED: May 9, 2022 at 5:21 p.m.
Kwity Paye went from being the No. 21 pick by Indianapolis in the first round of the 2021 draft to making the NFL All-Rookie Team, leading some to call him a steal. Now, that’s what Paye is saying about a fellow edge rusher.
And this guy wasn’t even drafted.
When he played at Michigan, Paye was roommates with Luiji Vilain, who sat out his first two seasons due to knee injuries and didn’t play much in the next two seasons as he worked his way back. But Vilain then transferred to Wake Forest and had a team-high nine sacks in 2021. When he wasn’t selected in last month’s NFL draft, the Vikings reached an agreement to sign him as a priority free agent.
“I think the Vikings got a big steal getting him in free agency,” Paye said. “He’s just that type of player where I feel he didn’t get his fair chance at Michigan, but he’s going to definitely maximize his opportunity and give the Vikings everything he has. He’s an extremely gifted athlete.”
The Vikings are intrigued by Vilain. He was one of 30 prospects they brought in for a pre-draft visit, and they locked him up as the seventh round was ending with a $20,000 signing bonus and by guaranteeing $207,000 of his rookie minimum salary.
The 6-foot-4, 252-pound Vilain will arrive in the Twin Cities on Thursday and sign his deal. He will take the field Friday for the start of a two-day rookie minicamp, beginning his tenure as an outside linebacker in the Vikings’ 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Ed Donatell.
“I feel I’m going to get at Minnesota great coaching and great leadership from guys like Za’Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter and all the other guys in the outside linebacker room,” Vilain said. “Just being able to learn from those people is going to take my game to another level. I don’t even know where it can go, but I know it’s going to go far.”
Vilain, 24, is still raw. He is a native of Ottawa, Canada, born to Louis and Mary Vilain, natives of Haiti. He grew up playing hockey, basketball, soccer and football. But his high school didn’t have a football team, so he played summer league ball up until his junior year.
As a junior, wanting to get seasoning to attract college recruiters, Vilain transferred to Episcopal High School in Alexandria, Va. That worked, and he was recruited to play at Michigan.
His years in the Big Ten did not go well. Vilain missed his freshman year of 2017 with a right knee injury and then sat out 2018 with a left knee injury. He returned to play for the Wolverines in 2019 and 2020 but still wasn’t fully back from his injuries and got into just 12 games with no starts.
“It was definitely frustrating mentally,” Vilain said of his Michigan years. “It was tough physically. And then just having to come back from being out two years was even harder. You think that when you come back you’ll be the same player or even better, which was not the case. I had to work really hard to get back and I ended up transferring, and I felt getting that fresh start really helped me out.”
Finally fully healthy, Vilain showed continued improvement for Wake Forest as last season went along. In the ACC Championship Game against Pittsburgh, he twice sacked Panthers quarterback Kenny Pickett, who was taken with the No. 20 pick in the draft by the Steelers.
“It was great, definitely,” Vilain said of his final collegiate season. “I always knew that I had it in me.”
Vilain doesn’t deny that he has to refine his pass-rush moves and needs to be better against the run. Still, he thought he might be drafted. When he wasn’t, he quickly committed to the Vikings.
“I’m super excited,” he said. “There were a lot of teams calling, but I thought that was where I could develop the best.”
Nate O’Neal, a pass-rush coach who has worked in recent years with Vikings defensive linemen D.J. Wonnum, Kenny Willekes and Janarius Robinson and since-departed lineman Michael Pierce, foresees Vilain developing well with Minnesota. O’Neal, who runs the Feet, Hips and Hands instructional program in Fort Myers, Fla., has worked with Vilain over the past year.
“I think his potential is out of this world,” O’Neal said. “He definitely has a crazy high ceiling. Look at what he did on the field at Wake Forest, which was his first real year of significant playing time in college football. I think the Vikings got a good one.”
Vilain trained regularly with O’Neal leading up to the draft. They worked on power rushing, rush angles, hand placement and pre-snap drills, among other things.
“He just needs to continue to get reps,” O’Neal said. “He’s going to continue to get better. He’s going to play for a long time in the NFL and he’s going to do that at a high level.”
Vilain is hoping to provide the NFL with another Canadian. Last season, there were 29 natives on NFL rosters.
Vilain is friendly with many of the Canadians in the league. That includes former Michigan and University of Minnesota defensive back Benjamin St-Juste, a Montreal native who is now with the Washington Commanders and had Vilain as a groomsman at his wedding last month.
Vilain has been talking regularly to St-Juste to learn about the Twin Cities and to get some tips on playing in the NFL. He also has been speaking with his good friend Paye, who started all 15 games he played last year for the Colts and finished with four sacks and 10 quarterback hits.
“He hasn’t had any injuries since (his first two years at Michigan), and he’s just been steadily climbing and continuing to improve, and this past year he played extremely well at Wake Forest,” Paye said of Vilain. “And I feel like he can be even so much better. I’m personally excited to see how he does with the Vikings, and I think he’ll touch the field his rookie year.”
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