Penn State tried its best to replace six defensive starters in the Outback Bowl to close out the 2021 season, but the effort simply ran out of gas as Arkansas overpowered them on the ground in the second half. But there were some bright spots to pay close attention to during the game from some of the new faces expected to step into some key roles in 2022. Among those taking advantage of the opportunity to play was Smith Vilbert.
The former three-star recruit out of New Jersey showed tremendous pursuit and aggression on the line of scrimmage to break through and create some pressure on Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson. Vilbert recorded three sacks in the game, setting the Outback Bowl record and moving into second on the Penn State defense in total sacks for the 2021 season (Arnold Ebiketie, who opted out, led the team with 9.5 sacks during the regular season).
“I didn’t even know about that,” Vilbert told a reporter when asked about tying the Outback Bowl record for most sacks in a game. “Thank you!””
“I knew he had a couple sacks. I didn’t know he had three,” Penn State head coach James Franklin said after the game. “It’s an Outback Bowl record. Obviously that is promising for our future. It’s going to be really, really important that he continues to grow and develop.”
Smith is the latest in a line of defensive linemen to come to Penn State who fairly could be assessed as project players to a certain degree. Like former defensive standout Odafe Oweh, Smith Vilbert doesn’t have a tremendous amount of football background, but he already has shown he has some good potential to be doing some big things for the Nittany Lions in 2022.
“Obviously coming to Penn State he was a new-to-football guy, being mainly a basketball player,” Franklin said after the Outback Bowl loss to Arkansas. “Excited about his development. That will be something to build on, for sure.”
Smith may have put his name in the spotlight for the first time in the Outback Bowl but he had already won the respect of his teammates, including Jesse Luketa, who declared for the NFL draft shortly after the bowl game.
“I’m not surprised at all, you know. This is exactly who Smith is going to be moving forward,” Luketa said. “He’s an extremely talented player and he’s finally going to be able to come into himself and display that. He can be as dominant as anyone in the country.”
Vilbert seems to take pride in knowing the support he has around the program.
“It felt good because all of these guys have faith in me. At practice and stuff like that, they can see how consistent I’ve been,” Vilbert said after the Outback Bowl, where he made his first career start. “And it felt good that Coach believes in me enough to keep me out there. Most of the guys knew it was my first time starting so I just appreciated Coach believing in me and telling me I could start this game. I went out and did the best I could do.”
If the best he can do in his first start is tie an Outback Bowl record, that is certainly a good sign for things to come on the defensive line for the Nittany Lions in 2022 after Vilbert gets a full offseason to improve his technique and approach while being a projected starter next fall.
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