Alejandro "Ali" Villanueva felt secure knowing he had put together a solid 2008 season for Army at offensive tackle, and entered spring practice having bulked up to more than 300 pounds on his 6-foot-10 frame to be the leader on the line.
So when first-year coach Rich Ellerson informed him one week into spring ball that he intended to move him to wide receiver, his first reaction was more or less, "What?"
"I thought I was pretty set already," Villanueva said at last week's Army-Navy luncheon. "I got all this recognition, people telling me, 'Good job this year, you're going to be a great tackle next year.'
"When they moved me to wide receiver, I thought I was going to last maybe two or three practices. I was the heaviest player on the team, the strongest player on the team, and I thought it would be hard to replace me. At the same time, I thought it would be a little hard for me to adjust."
But Villanueva worked hard at his new position, reduced his weight to a more svelte 283, and answered the call when the season began. Going into tomorrow's annual clash with the Midshipmen at Lincoln Financial Field, Villaneuva has caught 29 balls for 460 yards and five touchdowns.
Ellerson has a stock answer for those who ask why he made Villanueva one of the largest wideouts ever.
" 'Why would you take a 6-foot-10 offensive tackle and move him to wide receiver?' " Ellerson said, mimicking the questioners. "The answer is, every time he stands up, he's open."
There is more to it than that. Although he only played a year-and-a-half of football at SHAPE American High School in Belgium, where his father worked for NATO, he competed in basketball where he developed good hands and quickness.
Plus, Ellerson entered his new job planning to make changes throughout the roster, so he wanted to check out Villanueva's skill level.
"Guys were asked to walk away from some experience and take up a new challenge," Ellerson said. "Obviously with Ali, nobody more so in the history of the game has done what Ali has been able to do this year."
Villanueva worked hard at learning his new position with receivers coach Andy Guyader. At the start, offensive coaches called mostly fade patterns and jump balls for him against much smaller cornerbacks, but he has run more patterns and gone over the middle more as the season has progressed.
"Coach Guyader did a great job of teaching me exactly what I needed to do step-by-step - catching the ball, reacting to the ball, blocking in space," he said. "I guess they were happy with my performance and just decided to leave me out there."
Opposing cornerbacks couldn't have been too happy.
"They try to have that swagger and tell you they're invincible and all that stuff," he said. "But I don't worry about the corner. I just worry about playing my game. There's no way a corner can stop me. It's usually me stopping myself by making mistakes."
As for his time in the 40, Villanueva has heard people joke that he is timed with a calendar, but notes proudly he has gotten his time under 4.8 seconds.
Villanueva, Army's captain on offense, was born in Meridien, Miss., but spent much of his formative years in Spain, where he swam and played rugby. After his family moved to Belgium, he was urged to take up football, a sport he had not played.
"It was tough moving around because you can't settle on a sport," he said. "I didn't understand the rules of football until I came to West Point."
Villanueva played defensive end his first two years and moved to the offensive line as a junior. Then came the grand wide receiver experiment, and it has worked out.
Of his 29 receptions this season, 24 have been either for a first down or a touchdown. The Black Knights have thrown just 140 passes this season, barely 20 percent of their plays, but Navy must pay particular attention to Villanueva in tomorrow's game.
"We understand that for the sake of the program and for personal pride, beating Navy is huge," Villanueva said. "So it means a lot to us and we've got to make sure that we understand the importance, and go out there and play with the same intensity."
A limited number of standing room only tickets ($45) remain for tomorrow's Army-Navy game, 2:30 p.m. at the Linc. They are available
at Ticketmaster outlets.