Thanks to the NFL deciding to expand practice squads from eight to ten players this season, the Pittsburgh Steelers now have the luxury of using those two extra spots to develop a few extra players. One of the players they decided to sign after all the final cut downs were made was former Philadelphia Eagles defensive lineman Alejandro Villanueva, who they intend to develop as an offensive tackle.
During his Tuesday press conference, Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin was asked to talk about Villanueva, who spent the last four years as an active member of the U.S. Army, serving a total of three tours in Afghanistan.
“He’s a guy that we believe has some upside, that has some talent, but aside from talent has some special characteristics that might assist him in terms of helping that talent come out, or grow and develop,” said Tomlin of the 6-9 Villanueva. “So we’ll put him in the program like we did Chris Hubbard and Justin Brown and he’ll come with the mentality about regarding getter better on a day to day basis, and we’ll see where that leads us. It’s really as simple as that. Not only for him, but for all practice squad guys.”
Villanueva, who will turn 26 years of age later this month, last played football in 2009 for Army as a wide receiver after converting to that position prior to his senior season. During his junior year, however, the Bronze Star Medal recipient started 12 games at left tackle for Army.
While Villanueva reportedly only weighed 277 pounds when he showed up at a regional scouting combine in Detroit back in April, he has since bulked up to 315 pounds since he signed with the Eagles on May 5. During an interview back in early August, Villanueva said the added weight was a result of switching changing training regimens as he no longer had to train to be a soldier.
“When you’re in the Army, you’re so busy that you barely eat,” Villanueva said, according to Matt Allibone of CSNPhilly.com. “You forget breakfast sometimes because it’s a commodity and for dinner, you’re usually so tired you only eat a little whereas now I’m getting plenty to eat.”
Back in June, Eagles head coach Chip Kelly talked pretty glowingly about how well Villanueva had progressed during their team’s offseason practices.
“I’ve been kind of partially amazed that he could do what he’s done,” Kelly said on the closing day of Eagles minicamp. “He was training such in a different realm, I think he was preparing for a lot of the PT work that he did in the Army, he was running five miles a day. We’re certainly not asking our defensive linemen to run five miles a day.
“There was one day here … I think he went from here to an Army training session and went out and had a couple PT tests that he had to pass and actually one of them was a five-mile test. He nailed it and came back and didn’t miss a day. He’s been just a guy that you see every day just getting a little bit better, getting a little bit better. As I said the other day, a real intriguing prospect but just amazed at everything that Alejandro does to be honest with you.”
The Steelers are certainly amazed enough with Alejandro to give him a spot on their practice squad and that fact that he already likely looks the part of an NFL left tackle thanks to him bulking up is certainly something to get excited about.
Moving forward, new Steelers offensive line coach Mike Munchak now has a big piece of clay to work with this season and we’ll have to see where things go from there with Villanueva. If he develops like the team hopes that he will, perhaps there’s a chance he gets promoted to the 53 man roster later on in the season. With the way that current backup swing tackle Mike Adams has played during his first two seasons in the league, it would be great if Villanueva could somehow shore up the depth at the tackle position on the Steelers offensive line as soon as 2015, if not by later this season.