Villanueva: 'Confidence was a major thing'

He is 6-foot-9, 300 pounds plus, and has dealt with the unimaginable while serving as a U.S. Army Ranger, and is about as strong as they come mentally and physically. But Steelers guard Alejandro Villanueva still is someone who has had to deal with doubts as far as his football career is concerned.

Villanueva's dream has always been to play in the NFL, but after he wasn't drafted in 2010 out of West Point, he wasn't sure if it would ever happen. Villanueva got a tryout with the Cincinnati Bengals, and went to their rookie minicamp where he worked at tight end. He wasn't signed, instead heading out in his first of three deployments. When he returned he gave it another shot with the Chicago Bears, but again was signed and was deployed and football would have to wait.

He never let the dream die.

In 2014 he signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, but was cut during camp. And then his break came. About a week after the Eagles let him go the Steelers signed him to their practice squad.

He spent endless hours working hard that first season, studying film and learning the intricacies of playing tackle in the NFL with the hope that he would be able to take the next step.

But when it came time for the roster cuts at the start of the 2015 season, he didn't know what was going to happen. The burly, rugged war veteran had his doubts.

"I'd been cut before," said Villanueva looking back. "I'd been trying to get in the NFL for so many years. From Cincinnati, to Chicago, to Philadelphia, you always get the bad news in a way you don't expect it. I was just trying to make the team here. I didn't think it looked good from an experience standpoint, and there were just too many things stacked up. What came through for me were my coaches and teammates. Coach (Mike) Munchak was the difference maker, giving me a lot of confidence to play. And once I got on the field it was the support from my teammates. From Ben (Roethlisberger), to the offensive line especially and even other players like Stephon Tuitt and Cam Heyward. From that aspect I am very fortunate.

"The Steelers sped things up in terms of my development and I found myself feeling comfortable in preseason games. Honestly it was more my teammates being able to bring me up to speed and me contributing and making my way onto the roster."

Once he made his way on the roster, he made the most of it. Villanueva stepped in Week 6 when left tackle Kelvin Beachum went down with a season ending knee injury. But he admittedly had some struggles early on adapting to the starting role, serving as his own worst critic and beating himself up at times over his performance.

"It's just that there were very few plays that looked good early," said Villanueva. "There were very few plays that looked up to the standard that I wanted to set for myself. That was hard. Marcus Gilbert was having arguably the best season a tackle has had in a while and it was just pure physicality and I was not being as physical as he was. David DeCastro showed that he's one of the best guards in the world and I was not playing up to standard. Cody Wallace was bringing all that physicality, Ramon Foster was being extremely sound in his calls and being really savvy and I was not playing up to that standard, the standard of the Steelers offensive line.

"I was kind of the weak link and that was tough. I always try to get a small lesson from every single game whether it was being too hesitant in blocking a defender or whether it was being too aggressive and missing a guy. In terms of difficulty of the task I found it hard. Obviously I've done quite a few things in life, but you know the mental aspect was by far the hardest thing this season.

"I thought confidence was a major thing for me. I didn't feel like I knew who I was in the NFL. I watched a lot of film, I watched guys do things against other players and I didn't know if I could relate to some of those players or not. I didn't know if I was a guy that was as big as the guy that I was watching on film. I didn't know if I was as strong as them, as quick as them so that confidence kind of hurt me a little bit in the beginning.

"Also I was trying to make sure I just did my job so I was getting a little messed up with all of the information I was absorbing during the week. I was overcompensating for my lack of experience with a little too much work on the film side and I was expecting a little too much from every play. Towards the end I was able to simplify things a little bit better, but I still feel there are a lot of things I need to do better in my game."

Villanueva has already started to work on preparing for the 2016 season. He hits the weights daily. He watches film at home. He is focused to come back stronger, better and more prepared if the left tackle job is once again his.

"I am going to sort of recap everything and watch every single game and see the areas that I have to improve," said Villanueva. "I think there are a lot of things as far as the mental standpoint that I need to do better. Physical wise, I've got to bulk up again. I lost a lot of weight during the season. I think it's important for me to get back that physical nature I was before the season started in terms of weight and in terms of strength."

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