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Domowitch: Discarded by Eagles, Villanueva now a heavy hitter with Steelers

CONNOR BARWIN'S most vivid memories of Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva during his four-month cup of coffee with the Eagles two years ago have more to do with food than football.

CONNOR BARWIN'S most vivid memories of Steelers left tackle Alejandro Villanueva during his four-month cup of coffee with the Eagles two years ago have more to do with food than football.

Villanueva was a decorated Army Ranger who had just completed his third tour of duty in Afghanistan when then-Eagles coach Chip Kelly and general manager Howie Roseman spotted him at a Super Regional combine in Detroit and signed him.

"I used to sit there (in the NovaCare cafeteria) and watch him eat," Barwin said. "It was an impressive sight.

"He was just so determined when he got here. He was literally what you call a 'camp body.' It was pretty clear that he was brought in to be a body. Like, literally, just a body for practice.

"But he never looked at it that way. He was like, 'I'm going to give myself a chance to make this team.' He knew he had to put on a bunch of weight. He practiced hard, but even in the cafeteria, he would just sit down and engulf all of his food. I was like, 'Oh my God. How does he do that?' "

Villanueva was 6-9 and just a shade over 260 pounds when he first arrived in Philly. He had played wide receiver, offensive tackle and defensive end at Army.

"When I went to work out for them, I brought along my receiving gloves because I thought maybe they would put me through a tight end workout," Villanueva said Wednesday in a telephone interview. "They ended up having me do an offensive line workout."

And then told him he was going to be a defensive end.

"It was a very tough decision for the coaches," Villanueva said. "I don't know how much (of the decision to sign him) was PR and me being in the military and how much had to do with (his) potential.

"I was really out of shape. I hadn't played football in five years. The product they saw in Philadelphia was pathetic. I wouldn't have signed myself if I had been a GM or a coach. I had played offense in a triple-option (at Army).

"They probably figured defensive end was a more instinctual position where you can create an impact with athleticism, and maybe thought I had a chance there. I don't know."

I don't know either. Roseman declined to be interviewed Wednesday about Villanueva.

Long story short, Villanueva consumed mass quantities of food and packed on nearly 60 pounds during his four months with the Eagles.

"I didn't have great technique because I hadn't played defensive end in so may years," he said. "I thought I could make up for it in strength and size. I wasn't quick off the ball. I didn't have great instincts. I figured if I was bigger, it would help me."

He knew he was a longshot to make the 53-man roster, but thought he had a good chance of making the team's practice squad.

He thought wrong.

"It was a little bit of a surprise to me and it kind of hurt," Villanueva admitted. "I said to myself at the time, 'How did they expect me to play defensive end when I had hardly ever played it in my life and they were giving me limited reps with the third group?'

"But the NFL is a business. You're trying to win games. And that was what Chip Kelly was trying to do. He had to make decisions that were going to put his team in the best position to win games.

"Clearly, I didn't bring anything to the team at that point."

Villanueva still was an active-duty service member at the time. If he didn't make an NFL team, he was going to have to return to duty.

But less than a week after the Eagles released him, the Steelers signed him to their practice squad. And told him they were moving him to offensive tackle.

"The first time I laid eyes on him we were up there (in Philadelphia) for a preseason game," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. "I saw this really big guy saluting for the (national) anthem on the other side. After doing research, I found out he actually had a little bit of a tackle background in college. We went from there."

After the Steelers signed him to the practice squad, Tomlin told him that 2014 was going to be a learning year for him. He wasn't on the clock. They weren't going to judge him. Which was good, because he admitted that he was pretty damn awful.

"I don't think I blocked a single person the first five practices there," he said. "I was horrible. I tried to learn as much as I could. Coach (Mike) Munchak is probably one of the best offensive line coaches in the league. With the help of my teammates and coaches, I was able to get myself up to speed and compete for a job."

Villanueva made the Steelers last year as the swing tackle behind starters Kelvin Beachum and Marcus Gilbert. In the sixth game of the year, Beachum, the team's left tackle, tore his ACL.

Villanueva was the next man up. He replaced Beachum and started the next 10 games at left tackle for a Steelers team that went 10-6 and made it to the divisional round of the playoffs.

During the offseason, the Steelers signed veteran offensive tackle Ryan Harris, who had started 19 games for the Super Bowl-champion Denver Broncos last year. But Villanueva hung on to the starting job.

"Quite simply, it was upside," Tomlin said of the decision to go with Villanueva rather than the 31-year-old Harris. "I told both guys that. Ryan is a formidable guy. He did a nice job. But Ryan has been doing it at a certain level for an extended period of time.

"If the battle was close, which it was, it was reasonable to expect that Villanueva will continue to get better with exposure and experience and snaps. He's proven that.

"He's a much better player even than what he was last year. And he started 10 games for us. He's a smart guy. He's a driven guy. He's got special talents. Things you can't measure."

After the Steelers' 24-16 win over AFC North rival Cincinnati last week, Villanueva went up to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger in the locker room and apologized to him for letting him get hit. Not sacked. Hit.

"He's very passionate about his job, about keeping me upright," Roethlisberger said Wednesday. "That's just the way he is. I tell him all the time, 'Just keep doing what you're doing. I think you're doing a great job. You're growing and you're growing fast.' He continues to get better every week."

The Steelers have quite a bargain in Villanueva. His cap number this season: just $525,000. That's roughly $9.2 million less than the cap number for Eagles left tackle Jason Peters, and $7.6 million less than the cap number for soon-to-be-suspended right tackle Lane Johnson.

"You can never relax," Villanueva said. "I haven't proven anything in the NFL whatsoever. The team is trying to win games. If somebody else can help them do that better than I can, then I won't be here. I know that."

Funny how things turn out. Two summers ago, Barwin and Jason Kelce were the guys who broke the news to Villanueva that he was about to be cut.

They gave him the name of their agent - Jason Bernstein of XAM Sports. It was Bernstein who helped convince Tomlin and the Steelers to sign Villanueva to their practice squad.

On Sunday, Barwin will be going head-to-head against Villanueva. That battle will go a long way in determining which team walks out of the Linc with a 3-0 record.

"I'm really impressed by him," Barwin said. "I can remember when he was 250 pounds three years ago. Now, he's a 340-pound starting left tackle in the NFL.

"He's big. You don't see many (tackles) as big as him. He used his length to his advantage. He's got good feet. He'll be a nice challenge. Anybody who knows him is happy for him."