Villanueva ready to prove himself

Alejandro Villanueva isn't afraid of a challenge. Let's be real after all. The former United States Army Ranger has faced and conquered more challenges, many of them life altering, than many of us will ever come close to facing in our lives.

But he also isn't afraid of admitting when something is challenging, when a situation new to him presents obstacles that he had to find a way to overcome.

That was the case for the Steelers offensive tackle in 2015. Villanueva had been pursuing his NFL dream since 2010, a dream that was interrupted by three military deployments, but also the disappointment of not making a roster. He has spent the previous year on the Steelers practice squad, but wanted more. And he got it when he made the 53-man roster last year.

It wasn't a completely smooth road for him, though. He is the first to admit that confidence was an issue last season, that his play wasn't what he hoped after he stepped in as the starting left tackle in Week 6, replacing an injured Kelvin Beachum.

This offseason he is on track to fixing any issues he had. And it all begins in earnest now that OTAs are underway.

"This offseason so far, the primary thing for me was to get in shape and setting the path for competition through OTAs, minicamp and training camp," said Villanueva. "Last year was a very humbling experience for me to go to training camp in Latrobe and practice the way the Steelers have been doing it for a long time. It's such a harsh and physical environment that Coach (Mike) Tomlin sets for the players. This year I want to make sure I use everything to my advantage and I can compete at the highest level.

"It's tough to measure the progress I have made without putting shoulder pads on, without playing in a hostile environment. Those things I need to improve on from last year, playing away, silent counts, third down in critical situations. That is something Coach Tomlin is adamant about. If I can show that I improved in those situations, third and long, playing in a hostile environment, away from home, I will feel like I made strides in the right direction."

Villanueva entered the offseason as one of the favorites to be the team's starting left tackle for 2016. But that doesn't mean there won't be competition. The Steelers signed veteran free agent tackle Ryan Harris this offseason, and Villanueva knows there is competition for the job.

"I look at myself as being part of the offensive line," he said. "My job right now is not the starting left tackle of the Pittsburgh Steelers. My job is to compete to become one of the five starters for the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line. It's something I have to work really hard for. Nothing is going to be handed to me. There are great players here. I don't know who the starting left tackle is. Nobody has been announced.

"I have to show that I can do the job. It's a very explosive offense, a very valuable quarterback. The responsibility and level of play have to match the expectations."

Villanueva still has this week's mandatory minicamp before going back to Saint Vincent College in Latrobe for training camp. But he feels confident this year when he does arrive at camp, things will be much different than they were a year ago.

"When you go into your second year everything has happened before," said Villanueva. "I know what Latrobe is going to be like. I know what bed I am going to be sleeping in. I know exactly what the walk is going to be from the locker room to the field. I know how much time I am going to have off. All of those things take away the anxiety of doing it for the first time.

"When I watch film and I see a defensive player go against another player, I can now see what he is doing well, how fast he is getting off, how strong he looks on film. I never played a down of football before last year as an offensive tackle so I couldn't gauge that. It's a lot easier. It gives you a couple more tools so you can prepare for what is coming next." 

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