Army vet Villanueva learning in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH (AP) After what he endured as an Army Ranger, making an NFL roster is not that big a challenge for Pittsburgh Steelers practice squad member Alejandro Villanueva.

A 6-foot-9, 277-pound offensive tackle prospect, Villanueva, 26, is learning a new position after being released as a defensive end by Philadelphia in the preseason.

But that is nothing after three deployments as a rifle platoon leader of the 2nd Battalion, 87th Infantry Regiment and 3rd Brigade Combat Team.

As a thank you for his service, the Steelers are taking him on their trip to face the Titans on Monday night in Nashville.

Practice squad members usually don't go on road trips. Villanueva's teammates see it as a chance to show him what's to come.

''Absolutely, he can play in the NFL,'' guard Ramon Foster said. ''He has the size for it, and he's a sponge right now. He goes against James Harrison in practice every day. He's learning all he can and doesn't take that for granted. He's somebody who has a lot of room to grow.''

Villanueva was recruited as a tight end, but played offensive tackle, defensive end and wide receiver for the Army Black Knights.

His military accomplishments are much more distinguished. He was commissioned in 2010 and eventually assigned to the 10th Mountain Division at Fort Drum, New York. He earned the Bronze Star for rescuing wounded soldiers while under fire in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan.

''There were a lot of missions, and everything I did with the Rangers special operations unit was classified,'' Villanueva said. ''But my first deployment was not top secret. I had a really good group of guys from Fort Drum, and we had rescue missions in Kandahar. There were some good stories that came out of it and some bad ones.

''I shared some anecdotes with my teammates, because there were some parallels with what happened to me over there and some things that we go through over here,'' Villanueva said. ''They ask a lot of questions, and I tell them what I'm allowed to tell them.''

In return, the Steelers offensive linemen and position coach Mike Munchak are helping Villanueva turn all that size and energy into an NFL offensive tackle.

''I love playing O-line, especially with my teammates, the great group of guys that we have and coach Munchak,'' Villanueva said. ''So, for me, it's a great opportunity. Catching the football was really fun, but I think offensive tackle is where I belong. And this is where I'm going to develop my game.''

---

AP NFL websites: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP-NFL

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.