Army's hidden gem might have an NFL future

The Army-Navy football game is rarely loaded with potential NFL prospects and is known more for the character, sacrifice and overall pride that are exemplified by each player taking part in this historic rivalry. However, if there’s one guy in this year’s game who’s definitely worth a look and has drawn some interest from NFL scouts, it’s Army wide receiver Alejandro Villanueva.

Villanueva is a 6-10, 283-pound wideout (that’s not a typo) who currently leads the Black Knights in receptions (29) and receiving yards (460) and is the only player on the team to catch a touchdown pass this season (he has five). He’s caught four or more passes in five games and had the first 100-yard receiving game of his career against Virginia Military Institute, finishing with seven receptions for 119 yards and one touchdown.

I know what you’re thinking: How much upside can a wideout as big as Villanueva, who’s caught only 460 yards worth of passes this season, have in the NFL? Well, as a wide receiver, not much. But given that this is his first season playing the position after making the transition from left tackle (that’s no typo either), there is definitely some intrigue in a player with his combination of size and overall athletic ability. I mean, how many NCAA left tackles are there who have the kind of athletic skill set to make a transition to wide receiver? Not many.

Before we break down Villanueva’s potential at the next level, let me say this: He’s not considered a legitimate wide receiver prospect in the NFL. However, what’s gaining him attention from so many scouts is his overall coordination, body control and grace for a player his size, and his potential to develop at any number of positions.

Villanueva is a former high school football/basketball star who came to Army more as an athlete than as any kind of technically sound football player. He saw spot duty as a defensive lineman in 2006 and 2007 before making the transition to offensive tackle midway through the ‘07 season. In 2008, he started all 12 games for the Black Nights at left tackle and displayed the type of size and agility to open eyes as a potential NFL offensive lineman. He was still very raw, played too high and lacked ideal power in his lower half, but he looked natural in space and was a fluid athlete.

This season, under new head coach Rich Ellerson, Villanueva made the move to wide receiver in order to utilize his athleticism and big frame as a threat in the Army pass game. After displaying the ability to not only block down the field but the body control to go up and high-point the football in the pass game, NFL officials started to take notice.

Villanueva recently received an invitation to the 2010 East-West Shrine Game, filling out the roster as a tight end prospect. And why not? The guy certainly has the size to hold his own at the point of attack, the body control to hit/seal defenders at the second level and the overall athleticism to pluck the ball and make the occasional play in the pass game.

There’s just one problem: Army’s policy doesn’t allow cadets to pursue professional sports immediately after graduation, requiring them to serve at least two years of active duty before applying for a release to pursue careers in sports.

So although we won’t be seeing Villanueva in an NFL training camp next year, it will be hard to forget about a kid with his type of athletic ability and overall size. And you can bet he’ll be one name highlighted by NFL officials for future reference as an intriguing developmental free agent, someone who might be able to fill out a roster spot as a team’s No. 2 or 3 tight end blocking specialist -- and might occasionally slip into the flat to make plays in the red zone.

Either way, he’s the kind of athlete who is definitely worth a look at the next level.

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