Experience has been the great equalizer for Canadian Luiji Vilain.
The 25-year-old Ottawa native is preparing for his second training camp with the Minnesota Vikings. The 6-foot-4, 252-pound outside linebacker made the NFL team’s final roster last year as an undrafted free agent.
With an NFL camp under his belt, Vilain not only knows what lies ahead but also how to prepare for and attack it.
“Comfortable and confident definitely best describe how I’m feeling right now,” he said during a recent telephone interview. “Going through my rookie year, it was a little hectic.
“Everything is thrown at you all at once, you kind of just have to take everything and run with it. But now, I know what to expect. I’m a lot more comfortable, I’m a lot more confident and just able to really focus on the upcoming season.”
Vilain and his defensive teammates will all have to adjust to a new defensive co-ordinator in Brian Flores, but at least it will be an equal learning curve. Flores was hired this off-season after the Vikings fired Ed Donatell after just one season.
In 2022, Minnesota’s defence ranked 30th in points allowed (25.4 a game) and 31st in yards allowed (391.1 a game). Flores served as Miami’s head coach (2019-21) and in 2020, the Dolphins were ranked first in defensive turnovers (29), sixth in fewest points allowed (338, sixth) and tied for eighth in sacks (2.6 a game).
“We do have a new defensive co-ordinator and we’ll have to learn a new defence,” Vilain said. “But I study pretty hard and try to learn the playbook as much as I can.
“I think having a lot of familiar faces still in the building definitely does help.”
Then again, adjusting to change is nothing new for Vilain.
He left Ottawa to attend high school in Virginia, earning a football scholarship at Michigan. Vilain played for the Wolverines from 2017-2020 before transferring to Wake Forest.
Vilain registered 34 tackles (22 solo) and a team-high nine sacks through nine games in 2021, his lone season with the Demon Deacons. The Toronto Argonauts selected Vilain in the third round, No. 25 over all, in the 2021 CFL draft.
Vilain appeared in three regular-season games last year with Minnesota, registering four tackles (three solo). But his preparation for life as a pro football player began immediately after his final game at Wake Forest with combine training, then a pro day workout as well as various individual sessions and interviews with NFL personnel.
Then there was the NFL draft, signing with Minnesota and attending both rookie camp and training camp before embarking on an 18-game regular season.
Vilain said having had an entire off-season to dedicate to football training, complete with adequate time to rest and recover, has been very beneficial.
“The year was a very long year,” he said. “You’re just trying to juggle everything all at once while everything is being thrown at you and it’s a big challenge.
“Definitely [nice to have traditional off-season] to take care of your body. You know what you need to work on a lot more going into your second year.”
But even a year later, the challenges remain the same.
“It’s making the roster, continuing to develop, cracking the rotation and having a big role on special teams,” Vilain said. “Just continuing to develop every day while doing those things.”
And understanding that while he no longer has to worry about juggling academics with football, as a professional the grind never ends.
“Exactly,” he said. “I’m always trying to get better.
“That has been my mindset since high school.”
Minnesota clinched first in the NFC North last season for the first time since 2017 after posting a 13-4 record under first-year head coach Kevin O’Connell. That was a dramatic improvement upon the 8-9 mark the previous season under former head coach Mike Zimmer.
However, Minnesota’s season ended with a 31-24 wild-card playoff loss to the New York Giants. But Vilain said there’s a definite sense of optimism within the squad regarding the ‘23 season.
“I think everyone is excited to be back,” Vilain said. “The environment in the building is so positive, the coaches do a great job of making sure everyone is connected and close.
“We’re excited about the new defence, we’re excited about what the offence is going to do.”