Posted by ESPN.com’s Graham Watson
Army senior wide receiver Ali Villanueva is 6-foot-10, the tallest receiver in college football and two inches taller than Philadelphia Eagles star Harold Carmichael, the NFL's tallest receiver ever.
Villanueva maintains he should have been a basketball player, but didn’t love it as much as football. So, he bulked himself up and played offensive line.
But when new Army head coach Rich Ellerson took over this spring, he saw something in Villanueva that suggested he could be a good receiver and Villanueva, the Black Knights leading receiver with 16 catches for 253 yards and four touchdowns, has embraced the move. He admits that he wishes he had had more time to learn the position, but learning on the fly has given him a sense of urgency that has paid off for his team.
Villanueva took a few minutes away from preparing for this week’s big game against Air Force to talk about his first and only season as a collegiate receiver.
What was your reaction when the coaches came up to you and said they were going to make you a wide receiver?
Ali Villanueva: I thought they were playing around. I was the biggest guy on the team and it sounded crazy to me. I didn’t think it was going to be possible to do at the college level. Coach gave me a reason why it was going to help the team and as a captain I couldn’t show that selfishness and say that that’s not what I want. I had to try my best at wide receiver.
OK, you’re eight games in and you’ve had a chance to reflect about your position change, was it a good move?
AV: I think it would have been a good move for me if I would have done it my sophomore year or even last year so I could have had two seasons. I’m always going to wonder what would have happened if I had played two seasons of wide receiver. The coaches are pretty happy. I feel like I have so much to improve on all the time. Every single game I see something different that I’ve never seen before.
Did you ever want to be a wide receiver like throughout the course of your career or high school or anything like that?
AV: No, no, no. I was always bigger than everybody else. I always wanted to be on the line or maybe a tight end. I never considered playing wide receiver. It’s one of those things that never crossed my mind, especially since I always played with teams that had really fast wide receivers and they were really finesse and had high verticals and stuff. I never even considered playing wide receiver. I liked playing tight end a lot in high school, but wide receiver was definitely something beyond my expectations in football.
So, are you saying that you’re slow?
AV: I’m actually deceivingly fast. That’s what my coach always says. Corners see me moving slow, but I actually cover a lot of ground. Coach is always surprised at how I’m always coming out of nowhere and making a block or when I’m running a route I’ll sometimes surprise guys with my deceivingly fast speed.
So it’s not really your height that makes you such an asset, it’s your speed?
AV: Ha! Yeah, I guess it could be that way. Actually, I had to lose a lot of weight to at least be able to compete out there. I am 100 pounds and a foot over a cornerback, though.
How much weight did you have to lose?
AV: I’m still losing weight. Every week I’m losing weight because as the season goes on, you get more tired and you don’t eat as much. Here at West Point, with the weather, you sort of stop taking care of yourself and it gets in the gloomy period. When I was playing guard this last football camp, I bumped up to 318, 320 and right now I’m about 278, 280 pounds.
Was it contentious on your part to get on a diet and get into the gym more to lose weight?
AV: Oh no. I never changed my diet, I never changed anything. Maybe I don’t eat as much because maybe I was forcing myself to eat a little bit more than normal when I was playing offensive line, but I haven’t changed anything. I do what the team does, I eat the same thing as the team does. I just happen to lose more weight because I’m not used to running so much, I guess.
Do you ever surprise yourself with how well you’ve caught a ball or a route you’ve run?
AV: I guess I do surprise myself a lot by making the transition from offensive line, which has completely different footwork than a wide receiver. And me making catches against a corner who’s played four years of corner and gone against really good wide receivers. I’m still able to make a catch on him. I think that’s pretty cool.
You guys have four chances to get three wins for bowl eligibility. Are you happy with the position this team is in?
AV: We expected more out of this team, but it’s a lesson learned, I guess. Coach Ellerson has come in and changed this whole program around. I think we definitely could have won every single game we played this year and I’m not saying that as a team captain or just trying to be positive. I honestly believe that we had a chance in every single game. We haven’t been surprised by any team. We beat ourselves in a lot of games and we just didn’t perform as well as we could in the games that we lost and that was our fault as players. It took a few losses for us to realize what we can do. It’s too late to do something about those games that we lost, so now we’ve got to focus on the future.