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DS EXPLORATION: Prospect in Fatigues

by Jared Belson on Apr. 19, 2010

I thought my eyes had mistaken me. It could not be possible.

“September 12, 2010. Duke @ Army.
Receiving: 4 receptions 68 yards 1 touchdown Ali Villanueva.
Height: 6’10” Weight: 283 Position: Wide Receiver

It had to be an error. Someone must have accidentally added a zero to the end of his height. Then how was he 283 pounds? Could he just be very fat?

I had to research it further.

I drove out to West Point to see if there really was a coach crazy enough to put a 6’10” guy at wide receiver. I had been to West Point once before, but I was way too young to remember what it looked like. If I had, I didn’t expect to see one of the most extraordinary campuses I had ever been on.

Tucked away in New York just north of beautiful Bear Mountain overlooking the Highlands and the Hudson River, I became entrenched in the aesthetics and the history of the area. West Point LakeFinally, I stopped staring at the perfectly still lake reflecting the magnificent autumn foliage, and walked up the hill to the practice area.

My first goal was to meet the mad scientist who came up with this idea. Who was he and what made him put Alejandro at Wide Receiver and not at left tackle, defensive end, or even the starting center on the basketball team?

That man was Coach Rich Ellerson. The same man who coached Cal Poly the previous 8 years. The same man who turned a 6’6” player named Ramses Barden into a record-breaking wide receiver and a 2009 3rd round pick of the New York Giants. That was the “genesis”, as he states, for his thinking in moving Villanueva to wide receiver. But why not have him play tackle or tight end?

"It’s because there isn’t much difference between a six-foot-two inch tackle and a six-foot-ten inch tackle", Ellerson said. The same does not go for a receiver.

“When you think about the corners on these different teams that we’re playing, they’ll line up against a guy like Damion Hunter every other week,” Ellerson said. “They will line up against a guy like Ali [once] in their lifetime. He is that different.”

So Ellerson experimented that spring; he tried Villanueva out at his new position, hardly knowing what to expect.

“Might [have been] a clown act,” the coach said. “But then he not only caught [the ball] well, he adjusted well and he kept getting better.”

Sounded like a fun experiment, but how do you take a 6’10” person and add in agility, speed, and hands, which are all needed for the wide receiver position?

It starts with realizing what Villanueva is and is not.

“He is never going to be perceived as a great skilled wide receiver, but he is a big strong guy, he can get up, he can adjust to the ball well, and he is catching the ball better and better all the time,” Ellerson stated.

A perfect example of Villanueva’s abilities came when Army played Iowa State.

“At Iowa State, the defensive back played [the pass] perfect. He was in perfect position, his eyes were in a perfect place, he went and tried to get the ball at the highest point, and we were open by 3 feet. It was up there where only he could get it, and got it.”

I was having little doubt that Ali Villanueva had the potential to be one of the most intriguing weapons in the country, even before the coach told me one last tidbit.

“[People] don’t see how effective he is blocking.” Ellerson said. “When he goes down inside, if he’s cracking a linebacker, you don’t want your son playing linebacker, cause he’ll knock you right out of your shoes.”

Now I was starting to get nervous, and I wasn’t even playing the game. Yet, I had to meet him. As the players all started walking towards me, I was wondering if I would figure out who he was, but then I saw him.

 Ali Villanueva

With a big smile and big strides, he walked right overto me and introduced himself. We started talking, and the pieces to the experiment were starting to unfold. His football versatility came from first playing tight end in high school, then playing defensive end at Army, followed by offensive tackle, to now wide receiver. The switch was starting to make more sense as he explained it to me.


“My first season as a D-end a lot of people didn’t believe I could do it because I was too tall and people were going to cut me,” Villanueva said. “I was really happy when they moved me to O-tackle and I could use my height; and there’s no tackle that is too tall to play football.”

The unanswered question was how he ended up having the confidence in his hands to play tight end and wide receiver. However, the next few pieces of information cleared it all up. Villanueva grew up in Spain and Belgium, playing soccer, which explains his agility. Then he mentioned that he played soccer goalie. That is where he got his hands!

The real question though, was how he ended up playing ‘American’ football.

For a guy who had trouble coming up with the name of an NFL player, before eventually settling on Randy Moss, and accidentally called the ‘red zone’ the ‘green zone’, it didn’t seem like football was really on his list of life goals.

And it made sense.

Villanueva grew up in an Army base in Spain. His idols are Spain’s soccer goalie Iker Casillas, and Lieutenant General Bill Carpenter, but not for his days as the “Lonesome End” on the football team, but for his services in Vietnam in which Ali wishes his “Army career could be as successful as his.“

In fact, it’s his Army career that means the most to him.

“The Army right now is the number 1 goal for me. It’s my passion,” Villanueva said. “Certainly [going to the NFL] would be a really tough decision to make and I don’t think I’ll be able to make it knowing all my classmates and teammates are getting deployed. It’s certainly a thought that I couldn’t live with.”

But at least for a few years, that is no longer an option for him.

It certainly seemed as if it could have been in 2008 for Caleb Campbell; he was the last Detroit Lions pick of the draft. The ‘Alternative Service Option’ was in effect when he was drafted, which would have allowed him to play while being assigned to recruiting stations in his area. As Campbell was getting ready for the Lions training camp, finally about to fulfill his dreams of playing in the NFL, he had them crushed. Two weeks after the draft, the Army dropped the ‘Alternative Service Option’.

Yet almost 2 years later, on March 11, Campbell’s dreams were back on track after reportedly receiving a contract offer from the Lions.

For the Army, whose focus is on building individuals who can best serve and protect their country, getting people to the National Football League is not something they care to encourage.

“We’re not going spend 30 seconds talking about the NFL,” Coach Ellerson states. “If that’s the end all be all for you, then this is probably not the place you should go. There are great reasons to be at West Point and the NFL is not one of them.”

For a player such as Ali Villanueva, that does not seem to be a problem. Although pairing his potential and intangibles with his work ethic and character, he would certainly be an intriguing player to watch in the NFL. Even at the next level, finding the best way to cover him at tight end or wide receiver would be tough, especially for someone who is constantly trying to improve his craft.

“It’s not whether they could beat me or not,” Villanueva says. “It’s whether I can beat myself. I’ve never played against someone who was taller than me or who I think is stronger than me, or a DB that I can’t beat. It’s always me not being able to perform to the best of my abilities.”

At 6’10” almost everything you want to do is going to be an experiment and a challenge. The major one ahead of Villanueva has nothing to do with football. He wants to be an infantry leader. Unfortunately, while being tall on the football field is advantageous to being open as a target for your quarterback, it is just the opposite on the battlefield. For Villanueva though, no challenge is too tall.

I had come to see an intriguing NFL prospect. I left seeing an intriguing one for the United States Army.