There is a long pause on the other end of the phone. Andy Guyader struggles to search for the words that adequately describe Alejandro Villanueva as a person. His career arc is equally unparalleled.
Few people know Villanueva better than Guyader. He was Army’s wide receiver coach in 2009, his first year on the job. He inherited the seemingly possible task of being responsible for turning Villanueva into a wideout.
Army head coach Rich Ellerson was the first to suggest moving Villanueva from left tackle, where he started every game during his junior year. Guyader rolled with the punches. He always considered Ellerson an “out-of-the-box guy. Ellerson gave him his first coaching gig coaching receivers at Cal Poly, and Guyader helped mold Ramses Barden into a third round draft pick. It was natural to follow Ellerson to Army.
Barden stood at 6’6, meaning Guyader was no stranger to tall receivers.
But 6’10? That’s something entirely different.
“My first thought was ‘how do you attack this?’ From so many different angles,” Guyader tells me in a phone interview. “You got a guy…it’s not like taking a track guy and turning him into a wide receiver because he’s fast. He was a football player, there was no doubt about that. He could play. It was more exciting on my end because although I didn’t know him very well, I quickly got to know him. We’re very similar with our engineering background. The mix was right. The match was right.”
As he tells it, having the same academic background only gets you so far. There aren’t any pop quizzes on the football field. But Villanueva has never been one to shy away from a challenge.
“He understands the need for emotion, it’s very natural to him. He’s a get-dirty guy. Obviously, that’s part of his desire, how we wanted to serve in the Army. Not behind the desk but rolling around in the dirt. It’s a piece of understanding that emotion. He plays with strong tenacity. He will hit you as hard as he can. That’s something you can’t teach. That’s inside somebody.”
Guyader attributes Villanueva’s ability to retain and apply information as keys to the success in the transition. He caught 34 passes and five touchdowns his senior year at Army. At 6’10, defensive backs didn’t know how to react to him.
“We [threw it to him] four times in a row at Iowa State. It was on like the three, four yard line. The fourth time, the [DB] is just so fed up, he caught a TD right on him. The guy, you can see him on film, turning away and slapping his hands. That was a neat thing to see.”
We were able to find the play he refers too, Villanueva getting full extension over a defensive back who, try as he might, couldn’t do anything to defend him.
Following three tours in Afghanistan, Villanueva gave football another chance. He bounced around the league before landing on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ practice squad in 2014, and the plan to turn him back into an offensive tackle.
He put on roughly 100 pounds, made the team out of training camp this year, and started his first game Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Though 6’10 is more appropriate for a left tackle than a wide receiver, it’s still four to five inches taller than league average. That presents its own technical obstacles but Villanueva’s uncanny combination of physical tools and mechanics help solve most of them.
“His arms are just incredibly long. You saw some of his technique on Sunday He was very quick with his hands to quickly break a guy. We would call that an axe, as a wide receiver.”
Instead of doing that to defensive backs, he rag-dolled defensive lineman Sunday, including chopping defensive end Allen Bailey’s hands and sending him into the ground on the game’s second play. It served as a glimpse to what Villanueva can do.
The debut ended sourly though, allowing a game-clinching sack and fumble to ensure a Chiefs’ victory.
He and Guyader texted each other after the game – as they often do – though the conversation was brief. Not much needed to be said. Unsurprisingly, Villanueva was disappointed in his performance.
“Nothing more than he was disappointed afterwards. Nothing too much beyond that to share. He knows the context of all of it. He knows it means a huge amount. But he has his head on squarely about everything that occurred.”
But as a man with a strong military background, who has fought to protect our country, a miscue on the football field won’t rattle him. Even six years ago when Guyader coached him, he describes Villanueva as incredibly mature.
“He’s open to criticism and praise. He understands how to self-correct. Football players need to have that ability to learn from what is occurring on the field. I know what happened on the last play of the game, but I have no doubt that he will learn from that rep and that situation. His ability to take corrective teaching and also to self-correct, he has an ability to handle all those different elements in a very mature fashion.”
And the man who coached him is confident you’ll see a much better performance Sunday against the Cincinnati Bengals.
“If it happened in the first quarter, he would have bounced back. The fact it happened at the end of the game, it’s going to stick with him. He won’t be able to correct that until that situation arises again. That’s what I know would have been frustrating to him after the game. Because he would have felt like he let people down. That’s not what he wants to leave people. He’ll do great and learn from it.”
We ended the conversation how this article began – describing Villanueva as a person.
“You found somebody who is, gosh. You take the best of everything but it’s magnified with him. It’s multiplied. He’s somebody that understands what’s going on around him. He understands what’s going on internally. He’s experienced so much and yet, you would never know that from talking to him. He makes you feel good about yourself. What he’s done and what he will continue to do really is amazing.”
To Guyader, there’s no telling when we’ll see a person – and a player – with a makeup like his.
“He was the star of the show and yet he was so humble about it, really about everything. I couldn’t see another guy out there like that. I really couldn’t see it.”