Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant took the shotgun snap and looked left to throw a tunnel screen in Week 3 of the 2018 season. Two linemen and one slot receiver sprinted to try to block for receiver Justyn Ross, who would finish the year with exactly 1,000 receiving yards.
The ball never made it to Ross. Georgia Southern cornerback Kindle Vildor squeezed between Ross and the left tackle and intercepted the pass.
With that — a pick against a Clemson team that would go undefeated and win the national championship — Vildor announced himself to NFL scouts.
“He just looked like he belonged out there,” Georgia Southern coach Chad Lunsford told the Sun-Times last week.
Of the 48 regular-season games Vildor played in college, the Clemson game was the only one Bears general manager Ryan Pace cited after drafting Vildor in the fifth round last month. Vildor’s Eagles lost 38-7, but he didn’t allow a single catch.
“The game put me on the map and caught a lot of eyes,” Vildor, who also had a pick in the Senior Bowl, said last month. “It was a play that I’d seen on film many times. And when it came to game time, I recognized it and made the play on the ball.”
It’s the first part of that equation that makes Lunsford smile. Entering the 2018 season, Lunsford said Vildor dove headlong into film study, trying to gauge his opponent’s strengths, weaknesses and play-calling tendencies.
“That 2018 year, what you really saw from him was how much he got into the mental part of the game,” Lunsford said. “A lot of that interception he had at Clemson was because of how much work he’d put into studying them, and getting triggers before the ball’s even snapped.
“You could tell that, No. 1, it was skill. And, No. 2, it was how well he prepared for that game.”
Did the Clemson game give Vildor the confidence to know he can play with the nation’s best?
“In his mind, I think he already knew that he could,” said Lunsford, who first met Vildor, then at North Clayton High School in Atlanta, as Georgia Southern’s recruiting coordinator. “The thing he’s really good at is, he’s a technician. He works at his craft every day.”
The Bears believe that work ethic will help him make the leap from the Sun Belt school to the NFL.
At 5-11, 190 pounds, Vildor plays with a physicality that belies his size and could fit either on the outside or as a slot cornerback. The kicking game figures to be his fastest path to playing time, given that the Bears spent one of their two second-round picks on Utah’s Jaylon Johnson, who could start immediately alongside veterans Kyle Fuller and Buster Skrine.
“We stress confidence when we talk about the corner position,” Pace said last month. “And [Vildor] definitely has that confidence and that playing demeanor that we look for. A skill set that also translates well to special teams, which is going to be important especially in the early part of his development.”
Lunsford thinks he’ll fit well in Chicago, and he should know. Though he has spent most of his life in Georgia, Lunsford is a lifelong Bears fan, a remnant of falling in love with Walter Payton’s play as a kid. His dad was a Dick Butkus fan a generation earlier.
“Chicago’s known for defense,” Lunsford said. “It’s a blue-collar town — nothing given, everything earned. That’s what Kindle is. Kindle has put a lot of time into his craft, and he works. I think he’ll fit with what that mentality is.”