The following article appeared on the NCAA Football Fan House site on Sept. 2, 2009 and was written by Jim Henry.
Since his younger brother had the stronger throwing arm, Ali Villanueva spent hours running pass patterns in his backyard as a child. Villanueva wanted to be a receiver, score touchdowns and hear the roar of the crowd.
Villanueva had the hands - but not the body.
Villanueva was always tall and big for his age. So tall and big, in fact, that he naturally gravitated towards basketball. Villanueva, the son of military parents, actually didn't play competitive football for the first time until he attended the American high school in Belgium. When he strolled through the gates of West Point in 2006 as a 6-foot-10, 310-pound plebe, Villanueva started the football season at -- take a guess -- defensive end before being switched to offensive line a year later.
Well, brace yourself.
Last spring, first-year Army coach Rich Ellerson shattered the mold, believing he might have an edge no other Football Bowl Subdivision team can counter - a 6-foot-10 wide receiver. Villanueva, who started 12 games at left tackle last season and was heralded as the nation's tallest offensive lineman, will make his debut as the nation's tallest receiver Saturday at Eastern Michigan.
It's a long way from Villanueva's backyard, not to mention a three-point stance.
"If it would have been my choice, I would have stayed at tackle, but I understand the team needs me at receiver now, so I am trying to do my best to be dangerous out on the field," Villanueva told FanHouse.
"There are a lot of thoughts and a lot of emotions I am going through. I am trying to visualize what is going to happen but I can't because I never played the position before. It's different but I feel like I am making a smooth transition. I am excited, really excited. I can't wait to make some catches and get comfortable at the position."
Army has a new coach, new looks on offense and defense, and a lot of new faces who figure to log significant time on the field. But no decision has been more surprising than Ellerson's to move an offensive lineman to receiver. Talk about reaching new heights -- even if the Black Knights throw the ball only a few times per game in its new triple-option offense.
"We moved him from offensive line and we really think he's going to be a challenge on the perimeter," said Ellerson, who went 56-34 in seven seasons at Cal Poly. "He's an outstanding athlete who was a great basketball player. He doesn't run great but he's always open. He really compliments what we do with the triple-option, much like Ramses Barden did for us at Cal-Poly last year."
While it's unrealistic to think Villanueva will come anywhere close to matching Barden's production last season -- a team-high 67 catches for 1,257 yards and 18 touchdowns -- the switcheroo is definitely intriguing. Former Army coach Stan Brock once said Villanueva had the potential to be an All-American lineman. The new coaching staff originally moved Villanueva to right guard last spring.
"The coaches are so knowledgeable about the offense and they know so much about football," Villanueva said.
"If they thought it was a good decision to move me out there, I trust them. Obviously, they evaluated me and it wasn't just, 'We are going to put you at wide receiver because you are the tallest guy out there.' So they thought I had a chance and that's what I am doing, trying to do my best to help my team."
This is Villanueva's fifth position since he arrived at West Point. Villanueva was recruited as a tight end out of SHAPE American High in Belgium. He was converted to a defensive end early in his Army career and switched to offensive tackle during his sophomore season. And, for the record, Villanueva points out that he's not the tallest person at West Point - he says that honor goes to an incoming basketball player.
Let's be honest. Gimmicks aside, can someone as tall and heavy as Villanueva -- he has dropped more than 20 pounds and is currently 287 -- catch on?
"Why not?" Army offensive coordinator Ian Shields told the Middletown, N.Y. Times Herald-Record during spring drills.
"It's a little bit of a journey and discovery. But what if he can? We can get a lot of guys in our system to go out and play tackle. But how cool would it be if there was a 6-10 wide receiver out there, who can be a green-zone target? And think about the blocking possibilities. He can really put the hurting on some DBs and linebackers. It could be fun."
Villanueva hopes so. In fact, the athletic Villanueva has been unstoppable in practice on short passes and around the goal line. He caught two touchdown passes in the spring game. He'll also be used like a tight end and a third tackle for the running game.
Villanueva's senior leadership will certainly be embraced. On Tuesday, Ellerson announced that Trent Steelman will be the first Army freshman quarterback to start a season opener in the modern era. The last freshman to win a game he started for Army was Bryan Williams on Oct. 31, 1987.
"I feel really comfortable with Trent. He is a great quarterback," Villanueva said. "At the same time, I feel comfortable with (backups) Carson (Williams) and Chip (Bowden). I don't care who is calling the plays. We have three really good options at quarterback and that depth is a great advantage.
"I think I've been doing well in practice, but I am going to wait until we start playing games before I start looking at what I've accomplished. The position change hasn't been a big deal. With the new staff, there have been so many position changes. Even though mine has been the most obvious one, I would say 50 percent of our players have changed positions since last season."
Villanueva, whose given name is Alejandro Villanueva Martin, was born in Mississippi (he lived there for most of his first five years), but has also lived in Spain and Belgium. He speaks four languages - English, Spanish, French and Portuguese. His first sport was swimming, but he left the pool for rugby at age 15. Villanueva also played basketball before deciding to concentrate solely on football in high school.
Villanueva loves the Army, too. He spent most of this summer with the 117th Copperheads, 75th Brigade in Fort Sill, Okla., shadowing a second lieutenant's every move. While Villanueva's height might limit him if he concentrated on aviation or armor - "I heard somewhere it's not how long your legs are; it's how long your torso is," he said -- he has career goals to command a company.
"I take a lot of pride in what I do and I enjoy the structure and discipline involved in being a soldier," said Villanueva, who is yes-sir, no-sir polite and is majoring in systems engineering. "You know what's expected of you and you know it's going to be done. I like what I am doing. It's a passion, I guess."
Villanueva is passionate about football -- and wide receiver, even if he's almost as tall as Celtics center Kevin Garnett. In fact, Villanueva is two inches taller than Eagles great Harold Carmichael, the NFL's tallest receiver ever.
"We've all been learning a lot of new things under this coaching staff, but it has been outstanding," Villanueva said. "Honestly, we have so many strengths and I can't even begin to tell you how good this team is. We are anxious to show everybody how good we can be. I am not going to lie - it's going to be a challenge to stop us."
Villanueva hopes it's just like his younger days, when he was unstoppable in his backyard, too.