HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
There are 32 teams in the National Football League.
But inside each franchise, there are multiple units that snap into place in the making of the pigskin puzzle.
You have the obvious offensive and defensive teams as well as the special team units, which include kickoff and punt return, punting and placement-kicking squads.
There also are some teams that get little attention, maybe a passing reference in the game-day media notes package.
Besides each team’s 53-man roster, there is the practice squad and the inactive team. These players are ready to go at a moment’s notice, but they don’t dress for a regular-season game until called upon.
Ottawa has four players involved in the 2022 NFL season and they can relate to these various team breakdowns.
Rookie Luiji Vilain made the Minnesota Vikings’ roster as an undrafted free agent and you’ll find his name on the depth chart as the No. 3 man at outside linebacker. He was hoping to play last Sunday’s NFL opener against the Green Bay Packers on the special teams unit, but, instead, was placed on the inactive team of six players.
Arizona Cardinals rookie linebacker Jesse Luketa had an impressive training camp, made the team, was put on waivers after the team made a trade, and finally touched down on the club’s practice squad.
Defensive tackles Neville Gallimore of the Dallas Cowboys and Michael Hoecht of the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams dressed for their opening games, but had quiet statistical lines.
In the final days before the Minnesota-Green Bay clash, the 6-4, 252-pound Vilain was beside himself with happiness as a member of the Vikings’ roster.
“Honestly, it’s a blessing,” Vilain said in a phone interview. “I have no words. I’ve put in a lot of work. It was a goal of mine, but not the whole goal.”
A product of the North Gloucester Giants and Cumberland Panthers youth football programs, Vilain attended the University of Michigan for four years (2017-21). He didn’t see any NCAA Division 1 game action in his freshman and sophomore years because of knee injuries.
As a junior and a senior on the defensive line, he only played a combined 12 games (seven and five respectively) and recorded a combined 11 tackles. In his breakout game as a junior, he posted three solo tackles, including a four-yard sack and forced a fumble against the University of Notre Dame.
For his fifth and final university season, Vilain led the Wake Forest University Demon Deacons with a team-high 9.0 sacks and was one of three defenders in double-digit tackles for loss at 10.0.
The Vikings signed Vilain as a free agent after the 2022 NFL draft and he proved to be a good fit for their program.
“I definitely feel comfortable here. The people here make you feel great,” he added.
On the field, Vilain was an eye-catcher during the Vikings’ three NFL pre-season games and was the team’s No. 1 player for defensive stats. He had five tackles, including four solo, one interception and one fumble recovery on a second-down and goal on their one-yard line against San Francisco 49ers.
“I’m taking it moment by moment. Special teams will probably be my main role for this year and a couple of years. Whatever they ask, I will give my best,” he added.
Vilain learned a lot about how to train for football and become a quality player through coach Victor Tedondo at Gridiron Academy.
“I still consider myself a member,” he said with a slight laugh. “He’s like a big brother to me. As a person, he taught me to be a man about things. He was there for you and he believed in me. He also helped me develop my game.”
Jesse Luketa had a banner career at Penn State University as a linebacker and defensive end in his senior year. He registered 151 tackles, including 85 solo efforts, and one single-handed interception, which resulted in his only career touchdown.
Luketa originally was named to the Cardinals’ 53-man roster. But when the team traded for cornerback Trayvon Mullen, Luketa was placed on waivers. Fortunately for the Cardinals, Luketa wasn’t claimed by another team.
“Arizona was hoping for this and got its wish,” Jordan Schultz tweeted on the Schultz_Report. “They like him a lot.”
“It’s a crazy business, but he had a big-time camp and will either get claimed or go P.S. (practice squad).”
Luketa went practice squad, after making five solo and one assisted tackles in three pre-season games.
Michael Hoecht, who lived in Stittsville for two years, dressed for the Rams’ opening-game 31-10 loss to the Buffalo Bills, but had an unmarked stats line. In the three-game pre-season, he posted nine tackles. Hoecht played in 17 games for the Rams in 2021, which included three starts, and was credited with seven tackles.
Neville Gallimore is playing his third season with the Cowboys, after being selected No. 82 in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft. During the Cowboys’ 19-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, he had one assisted tackle.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.
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