When Mike Tomlin was asked what Adams’s time off the field would mean for the team moving forward, he simply responded in Tomlin fashion, “I don’t have a crystal ball. We’ll see.”
But for Villanueva, this is his moment to shine by using his tremendous physicality combined with increased reps on the practice field and more focused attention from the coaching staff to build credibility as a go-to guy capable of having an impact both while Adams is recovering and long after.
The timing for Adams’s surgery is in the least curious and at best unfortunate. According to the Pittsburgh Steelers, surgery was needed to rectify an issue that had been lingering for a couple of years and recently hit a crisis point. But this also represents an alignment of stars that Villanueva is determined not to waste.
“The reality is that there are players that have the opportunity, and there are players that don’t. And it doesn’t have anything to do with their game, it’s just their situation. But for me right now, nothing is proven yet. Nothing is done. Right now, it’s everything for me to prove, and everything for me to do.”
While it’s too early to say for sure, and the pads don’t go on until Wednesday, Villanueva was lining up at left tackle in Monday's practice drills. The fact he's charged with locking down Ben Roethlisberger's blind side indicates both a vote of, at the very least, interest from offensive coaching staff, and also a lack of experienced depth.
To some, Villanueva’s football career might seem almost accidental. He came up through high school playing rugby, earning a spot on West Point’s Black Knights when one of his buddies from the scrum preceded him to that program and tipped off the coaching staff about Villanueva’s athleticism.
After graduating, he served three tours of duty in Iraq as an Army Ranger, earning the rank of Captain along with a chest full of medals including the Bronze Star for actions of valor in combat.
In an effort to return to football upon taking a break from the military, last preseason with the Philadelphia Eagles as a defensive end, he was one of the first two players cut (along with wide receiver B.J. Cunningham) during training camp. According to reports it was a rather unceremonious dismissal for such a decorated war hero, made worse by the image of the big man carrying his belonging out of the Eagle’s NovaCare Complex in garbage bags.
At that moment, Villanueva was a man in transition. While Army life had him running five miles at the drop of a hat, he was very much in a state of flux.
“I think when I was with the Eagles, everything was just fast and furious, everything thrown at me: new position, new concepts, new city, new transition into the civilian world. I really didn’t have time to look at what my body needed.”
The Steelers saw value in Villanueva’s raw talent and signed him a week later to the practice squad and shifted him back to offense.
Over the course of the year, Villanueva had time to settle in and find some solid ground. He’s stronger than he was a year ago, and has bulked up per the standards of a top-tier offensive tackle. He followed the advice of fellow players Cameron Heyward and Maurkice Pouncey and the team's strength and conditioning staff to build on the 6-9 frame that God gave him.
In the offseason, he continued to challenge himself, most recently by training with his brother during a summer visit with his family in Spain. The mention of his younger sibling brought a glimmer to his eyes and curl to his lips as he spoke.
“My brother plays rugby. He’s going to try to go to the Olympics next year," Villanueva said. "He is kind of the standard when I look for someone who is conditioned for a big guy. I try to follow the same intensity he would follow.”
For a man with a personal history of rising to the occasion with a soldier’s bravery and boldness, Villanueva is clearly in it to win it. But like he has done so many times in his life, he’s ready to earn it the hard way, light on words and heavy on action. But as he repeatedly said, nothing is done and there are miles to go before he proves himself.
“They want to get people who can play and people they can trust," he said. "It doesn’t matter who is around me or who is on the roster, every single tackle on the team can get hurt tomorrow. If they do not trust me I’m not going to play regardless.”