Villanueva goes from Army Ranger to NFL offensive tackle
PITTSBURGH (AP) Alejandro Villanueva says he is amazed by his teammates.
Funny thing is, his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates say the same thing about the offensive tackle expected to make his first start Sunday at Kansas City.
Villanueva is a former Army Ranger who won a Bronze Star while serving in Afghanistan.
”He’s been ready for this ever since walking into this building,” Steelers guard Cody Wallace said Thursday. ”In fact, he was ready long before he ever got here.”
Villanueva will take the place of left tackle Kelvin Beachum, who sustained a season-ending knee injury in last week’s victory over the Arizona Cardinals. Villanueva says he is not overly nervous about moving into the lineup because of his teammates.
”Kelvin Beachum works even harder than me,” Villanueva said. ”(Wide receiver) Antonio Brown is the hardest worker on the team. (Defensive end) Cam Heyward is a guy that makes sure that I’m up to (par at practice) with my technique and football skills.
”I’m just feeding off the energy of my teammates and coaches. That’s what’s making this team so special.”
Military service and the Bronze Star – awarded for heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone – aside, Villanueva’s path to the NFL has been astonishing.
The 27-year-old finished his college career in 2009 at the West Point playing wide receiver. Last season, following his four-year commitment in the service, the 6-foot-9, 277-pound Villanueva went to training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles as a defensive lineman and was waived. He signed with the Steelers, who kept him on the practice squad all season while converting him into an offensive lineman.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin couldn’t help but notice Villanueva during the playing of the national anthem last year before a preseason game against the Eagles.
”There was a guy standing over there about a head taller than everybody else saluting during the anthem and it kind of got my attention,” Tomlin said. ”I wanted to know about this enormous human being over there saluting.”
Villanueva added 65 pounds over the past offseason and made the 53-man roster in training camp. He remains in the Army reserves and is taking classes at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh while working on an MBA.
Villanueva knows his story would be enhanced by playing well and helping the Steelers (4-2) win their third straight game when they face the Chiefs (1-5).
”I just have to get better,” he said. ”Get lower. Get faster. Get sharper, and overall just be a little bit better.”
Villanueva played well in the victory over the Cardinals, though his role as an injury fill-in was overshadowed by Landry Jones. The third-string quarterback replaced injured Mike Vick, who was making his third straight start in place of injured Ben Roethlisberger, in the third quarter. Jones threw two touchdowns passes to rally the Steelers.
”You know that you have to perform like they expect you to,” Villanueva said. ”You can’t sit back and make excuses.”
The Steelers haven’t made excuses all season despite injuries to a number of other key players, including Roethisberger, linebacker Ryan Shazier and kicker Shaun Suisham. They have a winning record and Tomlin does not expect a drop-off with Villanueva starting.
”I’m not shocked by anything Al does,” Tomlin said. ”He’s a unique man, he’s a talented man, he’s a sharp guy, and a very gifted athlete. I think he’s capable of doing anything he puts his mind to.”
NOTES: CB Antwon Blake (thumb) returned to practice Thursday after sitting out Wednesday and said he is confident he will play. … Vick (hamstring), S Will Allen (ankle) and DT Stephon Tuitt (knee) all missed practice for a second straight day, while Roethlisberger (knee) and CB Cortez Allen (knee) were again limited participants.
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