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Pittsburgh Steelers attempting another DL-to-OL conversion with 6-9 tackle

Brian Mihalik has plenty in common with Alejandro Villanueva, and now he's hoping to share in Big Al's success.

It isn’t often that a player changes positions after being drafted into the NFL, but completely switching sides of the ball?

That's an even rarer occurrence, yet the Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the league’s shining examples in left tackle Alejandro Villanueva. The defensive line convert who had collegiate experience on the offensive side of the ball started the final 10 games of last season at left tackle after Kelvin Beachum went down with a knee injury in Week 6.

This offseason the team has hope for a similar long-term fate for Boston College's Brian Mihalik, a 6-9, 302-pound behemoth who's hoping to make the same transition Villanueva made from the defensive line to the other side of the trenches.

“I worked out for the Steelers in January, right around the beginning of the playoffs,” said Mihalik. “They brought me in to work me out as a defensive lineman, but when I was there they said ‘Hey just do a couple of kick slides real quick and we’ll see how this looks.' They signed me about a week or two later and let me know, ‘You’re moving to the O-line.' Ever since they signed me, I’ve been full-time with the offensive line.”

If you thought the task was great for Villanueva -- who spent 12 games at wide receiver and 12 games at offensive tackle at Army before moving to defensive line while trying to make the Philadelphia Eagles roster -- picture Mihalik’s uphill climb. The soon-to-be 24-year-old spent his entire football career, going all the way back to high school, almost exclusively on the defensive side of the ball before making the full-time transition to offense for the first time in his life.

“I played a little bit of tight end in high school, that was about it, so this is my first time playing offensive line,” he said. “I had been working on it a little bit because I had teams before telling me it was an option. Even all the way back when I was getting recruited out of high school, some teams were recruiting me to come play O-line. So I had done a little bit of it, just on air and stuff like that, but it was definitely a little bit of a surprise when they just told me I was going to the O-line right away.”

Playing opposite an offensive tackle can help a player pick up a few things. It gave Mihalik more familiarity with the position than he would have by playing any other defensive spot. Still, the intricacies of playing on the offensive line will take time for Mihalik to master, just as they did for Villanueva, who has improved substantially.

“You pick up some stuff from playing defense, but the hardest thing is just learning all the technique,” Mihalik said. “You get as many reps as you can, and once you’ve worked on something and gotten better, then you try and get consistent with it every single rep.

"I’ve picked up the playbook pretty decently. I came in thinking I would know nothing about it, but just from playing defense you look at it and say, 'OK, I know man-slide protection, I know inside zone, I know outside zone,' so I had more of a feel for it than I thought I did coming in.”

Thanks to Villanueva’s presence, Mihalik has a teammate who can identify with the challenges of his transition, while also offering much-needed guidance along the way.

“He’s been really helpful. He grabs me all the time in between drills and has me working on different things. Striking and things that he learned, and because he went through the same transition he’s able to say ‘Here’s what I struggled with. Here’s what you need to work on.' He’s been really helpful. Actually, all of the offensive linemen have been really helpful.”

One man who has been more helpful than anyone, of course, is offensive line coach Mike Munchak. With so much to learn in order to be physically and mentally prepared to compete for a roster spot in training camp, Mihalik is leaning heavily on his position coach for instruction.

“He’s definitely a great coach and you know that he knows his stuff, being a Hall of Famer and being an offensive line coach for so long,” Mihalik said. “You go into the meeting room every single day with an open mind and try and absorb as much as you can from him.”


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