26-year-old Alejandro Villanueva officially completed his transition from Army Ranger to NFL player on Thursday night, not simply getting a helmet on opening night for the Pittsburgh Steelers, but also getting the call for five snaps as a tackle-eligible extra blocker along the goal line.
Villanueva’s five snaps were split between two series, the first coming midway through the third quarter, which resulted in a one-yard touchdown run from Will Johnson serving as the tailback.
On his first series, the first-year tackle lined up on the line next to the right tackle on two consecutive snaps, though on both occasions, the run was designed to go off the left side of the line, where the Steelers lined up two tight ends. The second of two occasions successfully converted for the score.
The Steelers flipped the formation on the series, which occurred early in the fourth quarter. Villanueva lined up next to the left tackle, with two tight ends aligned on the right side, with Johnson at tailback in a 23 look.
On this occasion, however, the first play was a pass. After a run on second down to the one-foot line, Villanueva and Kelvin Beachum were both drawn into a false start, though the latter was called for the penalty, and the tackle-eligible was removed from the field for the third and five attempt.
It’s been a long journey for the decorated war veteran, who was originally undrafted as a tight end in 2010 after playing both tackle and wide receiver—the latter during his senior season—at Army before beginning his military campaign.
Thrice failing to make NFL rosters over the course of five years between 2010 and 2014, Villanueva’s most recent attempt to pursue his NFL dream came in 2014 when the Philadelphia Eagles gave him a chance as a defensive end after becoming intrigued by his workout and athleticism for an individual his size.
But the Steelers saw in him an offensive lineman, which is where he played during his sophomore and junior seasons, and when the Eagles cut him, Pittsburgh signed him to their practice squad, giving him a year to mature, not only into the position, but into his body, as he put on around 100 pounds in the span of a year.
A year later, Villanueva finds himself as the Steelers’ game day swing tackle, a role that he is expected to fill for at least the first six games of the season as the team’s regular swing tackle, Mike Adams, began the season on the Physically Unable to Perform List.
While it may be surprising to use such an inexperienced player as Villanueva, who is the first to admit that he is still learning the position, as well as the variety of defensive formations that he is to encounter, there is some sense to it.
Given that he is the reserve tackle, it doesn’t hurt to get him some low-risk snaps in a game. The fact that Todd Haley also has a history of utilizing the tackle-eligible in his offense, and Villanueva’s own history as both a tight end and a wide receiver, also help to explain the decision.