The transition from project to prospect


LATROBE, Pa. - He's still a work in progress, but Alejandro Villanueva has advanced from project to prospect.

After playing wide receiver, offensive line and defensive line at West Point, after three tours of duty in Afghanistan and after a failed shot at cracking the Philadelphia Eagles' roster as a defensive lineman last summer, Villanueva is making strides at offensive tackle in his second season and first training camp with the Steelers.

"He's doing what you hoped he'd do," offensive line coach Mike Munchak assessed. "He's learning the game."

The Pittsburgh Steelers traveled to Jacksonville, FL to take on the Jacksonville Jaguars in Week 1 of the 2015 preseason.

Villanueva, 6-foot-9 and listed at 277 pounds (he looks bigger), is doing so this summer by playing it.

With Mike Adams on the P.U.P. list due to a back procedure prior to the start of training camp, Villanueva served as the backup at left tackle on Aug. 9 in Canton, Ohio against Minnesota and again on Friday night in Jacksonville.

He played 39 snaps (59 percent of the offensive snaps) against the Vikings, second only to B.J. Finney (49, 74 percent) among offensive linemen, then tied Finney for the offensive line team high (63 snaps, 79 percent) against the Jaguars.

"He learns quickly," Munchak continued. "He has high standards for himself, as we do for him. He has a long way ahead of him but he has the enthusiasm and the desire to be good, he doesn't want to lose at anything. It's been fun to work with him.

"We feel at this point he definitely has a great possibility to be a very good tackle in this league."

The Steelers couldn't make that same claim a year ago when they signed Villanueva to their practice squad on Aug. 31.

"Last year we didn't know," Munchak said. "Now, it's just a matter of how good he can get and how long that's going to take, just like any lineman.

"He's getting a lot of reps, which is exactly what he needs. He'll play a lot more the next three (preseason) games and we'll see how it goes."

Villanueva has come far enough that Munchak was willing to contemplate what might happen if Villanueva were to play in an actual NFL regular-season game.

"If he got in a situation where he had to play we'd have to be smart how we use him, how we help him," Munchak said. "You have to build confidence in a young player. You just can't leave a guy out there on the edge all day by himself.

"Any young player, you have to find ways as a staff, that's our job, to make sure we're not putting him in too many high-stress situations and that we can kind of help him along the trail and kind of get his confidence going.

"I know I could trust him, so maybe that's where it starts, because I know the guy is going to do everything it takes to be ready to play in the game. If he's called upon he's not going to want to let anyone down."

Nor would Villanueva approach such a situation with a hint of trepidation.

"My confidence is high regardless of what I have to do," he said. "If you told me to be the President tomorrow, I'll make great decisions. The confidence issue is not something that I have.

"In terms of perfection in my game and being able to be more effective every day, it's something that I have to continue to work on. I have an unbelievable support group here in terms of Coach Munchak and my teammates. I just have to keep relying on them. This Latrobe experience has been outstanding. Hopefully I can come out of it with great lessons learned."

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