When the Pittsburgh Steelers failed to re-sign left tackle Kelvin Beachum in free agency during the early portions of the 2015 offseason, quite frankly, they didn’t know where they would go from there. While first-year tackle Alejandro Villanueva started the majority of the season after Beachum suffered an ACL tear, it was unclear if he could be counted upon to be a full-time starter.
The Steelers kicked around a number of tackle options, the most significant of which was Russel Okung, but they ultimately landed veteran Ryan Harris to compete with Villanueva for the starting job. Harris had most recently been a starter-due-to-injury for the Broncos in 2015, a Super Bowl-winning affair.
That entire process didn’t necessarily sit well with Villanueva, as he recently told Teresa Varley for the team’s website, opening up about the stressful 2016 season that he experienced in learning to grow into the role that now seems decidedly his own.
“I still have a lot of confidence issues”, the former Army Ranger openly acknowledged, citing especially the early portions of the 2016 season, leading into training camp. “I don’t think the team knew if I was going to be a starter. It was tough to deal with. Seeing the first team take reps without me. Second-guessing myself”.
You might not think that a decorated war veteran might fret over the role he might play on a football team, but Villanueva has embraced his new career whole-heartedly as he strives to reach the top of his profession, an ambition that has driven him for long years before he finally made it in the NFL.
That is what made the uncertainty of the 2016 offseason so difficult for him. “You see there is a disparity between what the team thinks of you and what you think of yourself”, he said. “That is challenging”.
No doubt it affected his on-field performance as well. While he may have finished the season looking like a top-10 left tackle, he struggled significantly early on, especially in the preseason and the early weeks of the regular season.
“When I started the season it was a little bit difficult to get myself back to that starting role”, Villanueva told the team’s website. “Preseason was stressful for me. I was mentally exhausted. This is a very competitive environment. They are always trying to get the best out of everybody”.
Still, he was thankful for the environment instilled into the team by his coaches, perhaps particularly offensive line coach Mike Munchak, who has been integral in helping Villanueva realize his dream of becoming on NFL player and to excel in that capacity.
“I have a very fair coach in Coach Munchak, who only wants the best for the team and is very team-oriented”, the starting left tackle said. “He pushes everybody to get the best out of them. That didn’t change from last year”.
Villanueva made significant strides in his play over the course of the regular season and into the playoffs, and that no doubt also coincided with a boost in his confidence in himself and his job security. The Steelers are reportedly planning on attempting to work out a long-term extension with him in spite of the fact that he is only an exclusive-rights free agent with two years of accrued experience.