After nearly three months, Alejandro Villanueva can see better than ever the challenge he is up against.
A former Army ranger who signed with the Eagles on May 5 after spending the past four years in the U.S. Army, Villanueva spent his first few weeks as a professional athlete enjoying the experience and readjusting to life as a football player.
He knew he was a long shot to make the team, but he was more focused on getting back into a sport he hadn’t played since 2009 than worrying about where he stood on the Eagles’ depth chart at defensive line.
Now, nearly a week into training camp, the former West Point cadet fully realizes how difficult making the final roster will be.
“[Defensive line] Coach [Jerry] Azzinaro calls it ‘the elephant in the room,’” Villanueva said after practice Thursday. “Half of us aren’t going to be here at the end. For me, I knew from the beginning it was a very tough situation but I’m going to enjoy the experience as much as I can.”
Despite having not played football since his senior year at Army when he was the team’s leading wide receiver, the 6-foot-9 Villanueva impressed Chip Kelly with his performance during OTAs and minicamp.
Training camp, however, has brought the added adjustment of playing in pads, not to mention the fact Villanueva is still getting used to playing defensive end, a position he hasn’t played since the beginning of his sophomore year of college in 2007.
During OTAs, Villanueva said he was more focused on learning the run stuffing techniques required of defensive ends in the 3-4 defense rather than pass rushing moves, a mindset that hasn’t changed.
“Whatever Coach Azzinaro tells me to do everyday is what I try to focus on,” Villanueva said. “It’s more of trying to fit the system than being an individual player.”
Still, pass rushing is an area that Villanueva will need to work on as he moves forward. He struggled to get past backup offensive tackle Matt Tobin during drills Thursday.
“[For pass rushing], we just work on attacking the shoulder, which is pretty much the basics,” Villanueva said. “Obviously I’m very raw and starting from the beginning so I’ve got to catch up.”
The one thing Villanueva has improved is the aspect that was already his greatest strength: his size.
Already one of the two tallest players on the team (defensive end Frances Mays is also 6-foot-9), Villanueva has bulked up from 277 to 315 since signing with the Eagles.
Villanueva attributed the added weight as the natural result of switching from the training regimen of a soldier to one of an NFL player.
“When you’re in the Army, you’re so busy that you barely eat,” Villanueva said. “You forget breakfast sometimes because it’s a commodity and for dinner, you’re usually so tired you only eat a little whereas now I’m getting plenty to eat.
“I’m trying to do anything that’s going to get me to be effective in this defense. If that means bulk up and move guys off the line then great.”
As much as Villanueva has enjoyed his time with the Eagles, he is well aware that his future is very much up in the air.
While the Army has released him as he attempts to make the Eagles, they are still determining whether or not he’ll have to return to the military sometime in the future.
In the mean time, Villanueva will continue to focus on the things he can control. Namely, continuing to improve as a football player.
“Ending up here is obviously my first priority, or I could have to go back to the Army or I could get out of the Army and look for a job like everyone else,” Villanueva said. “Football has treated me well, but I understand that it’s a tough competition. Coming in as a defensive lineman and competing against great guys is a challenge.”