A Find? Villanueva Bigger, Better

U.S. Army war hero Alejandro Villanueva making strides with Steelers as massive offensive tackle.

PITTSBURGH -- Alejandro Villanueva had two reporters follow him off the practice field Tuesday, but again used his familiar dodge of "Sorry, I have to go work out now" to turn down another interview request.

But this time he thought twice and stayed to answer every question.

Even a real one.

"What should we do about ISIS?"

The 26-year-old former Army Ranger, who was awarded a Bronze Star for heroism while under fire in Afghanistan, didn't flinch.

"I always look at what General (Stanley) McChrystal has to say," said Villanueva. "His point of view on all the wars and conflicts that we've been having have been pretty accurate. This is a very smart guy, very patient at the same time, and really brings the groups together to work, so with this ISIS situation it's going to take a very long time. That's essentially what he's saying. It's going to be very complex. We're going to have to set up goals that are going to be 10, 15, 20 years down the road for us to be able to resolve this.

"I was more of a guy on the ground," Villanueva added. "But if I had to look up to one of my commanding generals to see what their approach to global conflicts is, I think General McChrystal's been phenomenal."

If only Villanueva had the same confidence in his own progress this spring with the Pittsburgh Steelers. But, of course, it's only "practices with shorts on," as Villanueva put it. He knows these workouts "cannot dictate how I'm going to play in preseason."

But he certainly looks more confident on the field. And at 6-9 and a lean "338 to 345" pounds, Villanueva looks like an absolute beast of an offensive tackle.

Villanueva stepped into the first-team unit at left tackle late last week to replace Kelvin Beachum. This week Villanueva's back at second-team right tackle, a position at which he appears to be a natural. But it's a position he hadn't played since his junior year at Army until joining the Steelers' practice squad at the start of last season.

"Practice squad is a good opportunity for somebody who's been out of the game for a long time, or who comes from a small school, to understand that you can make plays," Villanueva said. "That's the biggest hurdle that I had to get over last year, because I haven't played tackle in seven years. I come from a very small school that ran the triple option. Now I'm vertical-setting against first-round picks and whatnot, so once I got over the hurdle that you can block these guys, you can be a consistent and good contributor, then you can come out here and play. Last year was a great opportunity for me to gain some mass and then be able to understand that I have to make up my mind about being able to block players on Sundays."

To backtrack, Villanueva went to Army as a tight end but spent his freshman season on the defensive line. He moved to offensive tackle for his sophomore and junior seasons, but was moved to wide receiver as a senior.

"That was a little bit disappointing," he said. "Because when I had my first season down as a tackle, with great coaches, I was hoping to build up on that junior year, and senior year just go all out and try to truly become a dominant player. But of all things they put me at wide receiver.

"Don't get me wrong. I had a lot of fun playing wide receiver. I knew I was not going to the NFL, so nothing I would've done as a tackle would've mattered, because I had to serve, but I think last year with the Eagles I wished that I would've played tackle, especially in that system. It would've been real fun."

After trying out for the Cincinnati Bengals (2010) and the Chicago Bears (2012) as a tight end, and making three military tours, Villanueva signed with the Philadelphia Eagles (2014) as a defensive lineman, but didn't make the team.

"I think they put me at defensive end because I wasn't up to the weight that they wanted and they didn't expect that I could transform into a 300-pounder in a short period of time," he said. "So I honestly wish I could've played tackle last year. But right now I'm in a perfect position because it's up to me. I'm controlling my situation right now and it's a good situation to be in."

Villanueva has been working individually with OL savant (and team broadcast analyst) Tunch Ilkin since joining the team, and the topic brought out the first and only smile of the interview.

"Honestly, if I were to do everything that Tunch says right now, I wouldn't have a problem for the rest of the year essentially," Villanueva said. "I've got to continue to get more reps and get more comfortable with what he's been teaching because the technique -- mostly technique -- and the very little thought that you have to put into it is what makes you a great player. You have to be really aggressive with his method, and that's the sort of game that I want to have. I want to be an aggressive kind of guy."

Villanueva's only been at it for nine months, but there's optimism that the Steelers have made a grand discovery. However, no one will say so until the pads come on.

"We have to get in pads before I can give you an answer," OLB James Harrison said when asked to give an assessment of Villanueva. "Right now you can't bullrush a guy. There are a lot of things you can't do, but that's one of the big things, especially with a guy like him who's very tall. You've got to be able to sit down and still be able to handle a bullrush and protect the edge too."

Villanueva is too humble (and smart) to make any rash pronouncements about his progress, but his weight is up and his approach is focused.

"Based on what I've gone through to get to the NFL, I have a little sense of urgency -- not just to make the roster but to contribute as well," Villanueva said. "So that's predominantly what's in the back of my head as we go through these practices."

But, he does feel he's made big strides, doesn't he?

"Yeah, yeah, but I don't think it means anything," he said. "OTAs, practice in shorts, this is giving me confidence about the playbook, which is very important at my stage right now, but it's performing on Sundays. I don't want to have any steps from practice till what happens on Sunday, so I think right now I'm putting in the building blocks that I've got to do. I'm learning from my teammates. I'm enjoying the staff of these Steelers, the way they're teaching me, the way they're treating me here. But at the end of the day it's just going to be what I do on Sundays or Saturdays this offseason that's going to dictate whether this has truly been a good development for me."


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