Steelers lineman Villanueva set for next step

HOLLIDAYSBURG – In July of last year, when the Pittsburgh Steelers opened camp, Alejandro Villanueva was just hoping to impress enough people to make the team as an undrafted free agent. By the sixth game of the 2015 season, he became a starter at left tackle, asked to protect Ben Roethlisberger, Michael Vick and Landry Jones all at some point.

A 6-foot-9, 277-pound graduate of The United States Military Academy at West Point in 2010, Villanueva was thrust into the spotlight when starter Kelvin Beachum got hurt in week 6. He’s in the spotlight again in 2016 because Beachum signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent in the offseason. According to the depth chart on the Steelers’ official website, Villanueva is listed as the starting tackle with Ryan Harris, a one-time Denver Broncos, as his backup.

“I really don’t think there is a different mind-set,” said Villanueva, who was at Hollidaysburg Area High School on Tuesday as part of the NFL’s “Fuel Up To Play 60” program, presenting the school district with a check for $20,000 as part of a grant awarded to the school’s food service department. “As an undrafted free agent, your best-case scenario is always just being able to compete for a job. I think I have that chance this year, which is more than most undrafted players can say.”

Villanueva, who served as an Army Ranger for four years, which included three stints in Afghanistan, doesn’t view the job as his just because a website shows his name first.

“I think this year, I have the same mentality, ‘how can I contribute?'” he said while entertaining questions in the office of Hollidaysburg athletic director/football coach Homer DeLattre. “If I can pick up where I left off last year, the I think it will make for an exciting camp and an exciting season.”

After the week 6 Arizona game, Villanueva started the final 10 games the season, plus the playoff game in Denver. The Steelers brought him to camp, telling him he was going to be tried out at either defensive line, tight end or on the offensive line.

“They started me out on the line and they never made the transition to explore other positions after that,” Villanueva said.

Villanueva roomed with Beachum on the road last season, and knew what was going on in the offseason with the former seventh-round pick out of SMU.

“I talked to him often. I knew of his situation and what his intentions were,” Villanueva said. “He is trying to take care of his family. That is very honorable and respectful of him. I don’t know what I would do in that situation because of the business aspect. I know I just want to compete for a job. Whether that is against Beachum or Ryan Harris or even a (Cleveland Brown all-pro) Joe Thomas, I just want to compete with whatever left tackle is on the team.”

Besides helping to promote the healthy aspects of the Play 60 program, which he did to a raucous crowd of Hollidaysburg students and school district officials in the Tigers’ main gymnasium Tuesday, Villanueva is working out and watching film in Pittsburgh while getting ready for the upcoming OTAs.

“I still have a lot to learn in matters of consistency. I am watching film right now and I still kick myself in the butt when I see I could have done better. I still watch that Baltimore game and that was not a pretty game for me,” said Villanueva, who was born on a Naval air station base in Merdian, Mississippi.

Having Mike Munchak as his offensive line coach has been nothing but a positive.

“He has been unbelievable,” said Villanueva, whose father works for NATO. “He (Munchak) is a great person and a great coach. I could not have done what I did last year without his supervision and leadership. I am looking forward to working with him for another season.”

With the draft slated for April 28-30, you might wonder if Villanueva – who received nearly a dozen honors for his military service, including the Bronze Star for Valor – will pay attention to see who the team drafts. At least five different analysts on the internet, from ESPN’s Mel Kiper, Jr. to Charles Davis of the NFL Network, predict the Steelers will take a defensive back in the first round.

“I don’t know who they will pick. You know, if they take someone in the first round, he is probably going to come in and take a starting position, but if you take someone second through the seventh round, you pretty much know it will be an open competition,” he said. “I will read the paper the next day to see who they pick. As long as I am getting a fair shot, that is something mentally I am capable of doing.”