This feature originally appeared in the Sept. 12, 2009 edition of the Army Football Game Day Program vs. Duke.
By Tim Volkmann
Things are looking up for the Army football team.
When Alejandro Villanueva made his first career appearance at wide receiver in Army's 27-14 victory at Eastern Michigan last Saturday, the 6-foot, 10-inch, 290 pound senior captain made his presence felt in more ways than one.
The Black Knights not only ushered in a new era under first-year head coach Rich Ellerson with a season-opening victory for the first time in 12 seasons, Villanueva successfully made the transition to a new position. Already touted as the tallest football player in the country, Villanueva completed the transformation from being an offensive lineman for the past two years, to running routes on the field with the starting offense last Saturday night.
Born at a Naval base in Meridian, Miss., parts of Villanueva's youth were also spent growing up in Spain and Rhode Island. The oldest of four children in a military family, his father Ignacio was a Lieutenant Commander in the Spanish Navy and also worked for NATO throughout Europe.
Villanueva's parents, who are both over six feet tall, knew their son was going to be tall from the very beginning and felt swimming would be a good way to help his bones and muscles develop as he started to grow. And grow he did. By the time he was 14 years old, he was already 6-9.
"When I was only 12 years old, I would show up to class and people thought I was the teacher," chuckled Villanueva.
As Villanueva grew bigger and stronger, he outgrew the swimming pool and started playing rugby in Spain when he was 15 years old. A year later, his father moved the family to Belgium and enrolled his son at SHAPE American High School. His road to playing football at West Point started with an interesting encounter with one of his new classmates on the first day of school that eventually turned into a good friendship.
"During my first day at SHAPE, I was walking down the hall and this kid started screaming when he saw how big and tall I was," remembered Villanueva. "He came right up to me and told me I had to play football. I said, 'Fine, I'll play.' I didn't want to be the odd man out. I played rugby before so it wasn't a big deal."
"I was a senior at SHAPE and someone mentioned that there was a big, 6-10 Spanish kid that had just started at the school," recalled Joe Puttmann, who is also currently a senior with the Army football team. "My brother is a tall too, so I just pictured a skinny guy like him. And then I kind of squealed like a girl in the hallway when I saw how big he was and knew what kind of impact he could have on our football team. Here he was, getting sick of everyone asking him how tall he was on his first day of school, and there I was making a scene while he was just trying to fit in. I think he was pretty irritated when he first met me."
Unbeknownst to either of them, both of their fathers worked closely together in their jobs with NATO, and the pair quickly became friends. Puttmann also proved to be Villanueva's first football coach, welcoming him to the team for his first day of practice.
"The first day he showed up, he didn't have any pads on," smiled Puttmann. "He said he had played rugby before and didn't need them. After I convinced him to go put them on, we did some hitting drills and our coaches matched us up together. I remember at the end of one drill, he had me looking through the ear hole on the side of my helmet. All I could think was, wow, this kid is going to do some damage."
"At first, I criticized football a lot and said rugby was better," said Villanueva. "I actually didn't understand all the rules until I came to West Point."
Puttmann had been recruited to play at Army and spent his first season at the U.S. Military Academy Prep School. Shortly after his arrival, he told the Black Knight coaching staff about his friend back home. Villanueva, meanwhile, was excelling in the classroom and was able to graduate from SHAPE a year early before earning an appointment to West Point. He joined his old buddy a year later as members of the Class of 2010.
Originally recruited as a tight end, Villanueva played as a defensive lineman during his first season with the squad. A year later, the coaching staff moved him to the offensive line where he looked to stay for the next three seasons. Little did he know, he would be moved again heading into his senior year when Ellerson and his staff arrived at West Point.
"As a tackle, I never really had a chance to use my height. The only thing I heard for the past three years was to 'stay low, stay low.' I would try to bend over and not look as big.
"When the new coaches arrived, (offensive coordinator) Ian Shields told me I was the biggest guy on the team and that they wanted to put me at left guard so we could really get some movement whenever we ran the triple option that way. I was looking forward to putting on 30 pounds and just being massive for the next season. I was getting there and was really bulking up. I was like 310 pounds when spring ball started."
During one of the Black Knights' early offseason workouts, Villanueva jokingly told a member of the coaching staff to put him at wide receiver. He was more than confident that the one year he spent on the SHAPE basketball team grabbing rebounds and swatting blocked shots were more than enough to qualify him to play as a wideout at the Division I level. Little did he know his little joke would catch on.
"A week later, Coach Ellerson told me he might want to look at me at wide receiver because he heard I had good hands. The next day, (wide receiver coach Andy Guyader) did a brief evaluation and said they would take a further look during spring ball to see if I could be productive on the field and, if I was, I would stay at wide receiver. If not, I would go back to the offensive line.
"At first, I didn't think I was going to make it. But as days went by, I felt comfortable and pretty loose out there. I knew I had a lot to work on, but in the end, they told me I would stay."
Ellerson is no stranger to working with tall wide receivers in his offense. During his final season at Cal Poly a year ago, his 6-6 senior wideout Ramses Barden led the squad with 67 catches for 1,257 yards and 18 touchdowns.
"Looking at the roster, Villanueva just jumped out at us," said Ellerson. "When we found out he had a background in basketball, we just wanted to find out what his skill level was. Like a lot of the different things we looked at, it wasn't set in stone. Let's take a chance and evaluate him.
"He will have some one-on-one opportunities, and if we are good enough at getting the ball out there, he'll have a chance to make some plays. We do some things formation-wise that take advantage of that offensive tackle background. It is a different kind of blocking out there in space, but he does just fine. And if he hits you, you stay hit."
Guyader also recognized that Villanueva had something that they could potentially benefit the receiving unit.
"After working with him, you quickly realize he is more comfortable lining up there and doing things as a wide receiver than he realizes. He was more natural at it than I expected. His hands and ability to catch the football are pretty impressive, along with his ability to establish body position, which goes along with not just being big, but knowing how to use it. Also, his reach as a blocker is where he can control a defender, unlike the other way around."
Villanueva started losing some of his extra weight during his summer training where he and 30 of his teammates spent three weeks attached to the 75th Brigade 117th Copperheads at Fort Sill, Okla.
"I was shadowing a second lieutenant and it really opened my eyes to what the Army was all about. At first, I thought I would want to get out of the Army after eight years, but, especially after my Fort Sill experience, I can definitely see myself doing 20 years or more.
"It was also interesting to hear all the comments guys made about my height, trying to figure out what position I played. One guy even asked if I played quarterback, since it would be easy for me to see over everyone else. No one ever asked if I was a wide receiver," smiled Villanueva.
Villanueva praises his dad for being his biggest role model during his transformation over the last four years.
"My dad is the smartest guy I've ever met. He has always been there for me and my brother and sisters, to take us to practice or do whatever it took to help us achieve the best of our ability.
"He has come to a couple of my games and was surprised how many people come to watch us play. He still tries to coach me all the time, even though he doesn't know all the rules. When he sees videos of me playing wide receiver, he tells me I look slow and should do this or that on the field. It is funny because we are talking about a guy who doesn't know the difference between a punt and a kickoff."
Villanueva also credits Guyader for showing him the ropes and spending extra time with him whenever he asks.
"Coach Guyader works so hard that, if you catch yourself going a little slow on the field, you think of him and immediately want to work harder. That is the kind of guy he is. You can tell how much he loves the game and he is a really good coach. He tells you exactly what you need to know. Everything that I am as a wide receiver has come from him. I think about him and all I want to do is go run routes.
"While I have advantages as a wide receiver, I also have disadvantages like my speed and inexperience. I know I have to be perfect in everything that I have been taught. The more I play wide receiver, the more I know I am not just going to get away with being tall. I have to work very hard at my position. I just have to try and stay big, go back to the ball and be aggressive."
Voted team captain last season, it wasn't exactly his first choice to move from his old position to a new and completely different one. But he knows that it is for a good reason.
"It wasn't my choice to move to wide receiver. This move was made for the team. Coach Ellerson made a lot of cuts and a lot of players had to sacrifice themselves for the team.
"When I think about players like Carson Williams, who was recruited to play quarterback in a pro-style offense but stayed even though we switched to the option right before our junior year when we made our commitments, it really made me look at this as a challenge. And honestly, you really don't see too many 6-10 tackles in option offenses very much. So if this was how I could help the team, I wanted to do it. Coach Ellerson told me he thought I could really help the team if I did this so I have just worked as hard as I can."
Some might have called making such a drastic change a tall task. Not when you are 6-10.
Tim Volkmann is an Assistant Director of Athletic Communications at West Point.