The last time you took notice of Smith Vilbert was likely the Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas to close out the 2021 season. While that game was a forgettable thud to end the season, Vilbert enjoyed a record-setting day by recording three sacks against the Razorbacks. It seemed like Vilbert came out of nowhere that day - but it didn’t come as a suprise for anyone paying close attention to his trajectory.
Vilbert made an impression on coaches from the very start. While taking a redshirt year, he was named as the Developmental Squad’s Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. Basically, he showed up and worked his butt off every day to make himself and the team better, doing whatever was asked of him by the staff.
Vilbert earned more playing time by 2021, and while not a starter, it was easy to notice him whenever he was on the field. He made the most of his opportunites, regularly finding ways to disrupt the offense. Therefore, it wasn’t too much of a shock that when he did earn his first start in the Outback Bowl, he set the program record for most sacks in a bowl game.
Unfortunately, that momentum was stalled as Vilbert missed nearly all of the 2022 season. In typical tight-lipped fashion, there was not much information given other than Vilbert was “unavailable.” Fortunately, the defensive end room performed spectacularly as Chop Robinson, Adissa Isaac and Nick Tarburton helped Penn State become one of the most opportunistic defenses in the nation.
Vilbert kept grinding behind the scenes though. He was named Developmental Squad Defensive Player of the Week twice by the staff, and by the time Penn State made it to the Rose Bowl, Vilbert was ready to suit up once again and made his way on to the field for the first time in 366 days.
Now, it’s time for Vilbert to put it all together and showcase his immense skillset. Currently listed at 6-6, 267 lbs., he has the size and athleticism to make life difficult for opposing quarterbacks in 2023 and eventually find his way on an NFL roster. Fortunately, there won’t be pressure on Vilbert to be the star of the position group as they will not need to pin hopes on him. Penn State returns a collection of talent at defensive end that may be the envy of every program not named Georgia. Returning starters Chop Robinson and Adissa Isaac will be back. Both will be playing on Sundays soon, with Robinson having the chance of being the nation’s top defensive end by the time 2023 comes to a close. Dani Dennis-Sutton showed a lot of promise as a reserve, and the former five-star prospect should be more than ready to expand his role in year two.
With a big offseason, Vilbert’s presence could take an already stellar defensive end group and turn them into an unstoppable force. The Penn State defense created more pressure as each game wore on in 2022, as offensive lines struggled to keep up with the rotation of defenive linemen thrown at them. Vilbert could be yet another standout added to the mix that opposing offenes simply won’t be able to keep up with.
If you had fun watching Penn State’s defense create constant chaos in 2022, just imagine what next year could have in store.