As a coach, Chip Kelly often surprises people with his player picks. At Oregon, he recruited hidden gems like Dion Jordan by focusing on athletic players, often finding or even creating new positions that fit their abilities. Just when you think you know what he wants -- say, mobile quarterbacks -- he'll draft Matt Barkley and turn a totem pole like Nick Foles into a Pro Bowl, Hall of Fame QB.
There are patterns, though. We know he likes size and athletic ability. Open minded players with good attitudes who are eager to learn and adapt. Selfless leaders. Gym rats and video junkies. Blue collar, understated, team-oriented guys. Guys who have either performed at a high level, like lesser known players on elite teams, or those who show enormous raw potential that may remain untapped. And Chip has tremendous respect for the U.S. military, as he showed recently when he quietly made deceased Navy freshman Will McKamey an honorary Eagle.
You couldn't make up a fictional prospect who embodies all of these traits better than Alejandro Villanueva, an obscure 6'9, 277 lb DE that the Eagles just signed. In terms of character, he's the anti-DeSean. Villanueva is not just an army veteran, he's a paratrooper and special forces hero who won the Bronze Star in Afghanistan. I think it's a pretty safe bet that he'll be a positive force in the locker room.
Will McKamey named honorary member of the Eagles
Eagles head coach Chip Kelly named the late William McKamey as as honorary member of the team.
Kelly's love of the military in general, and Special Forces in particular, is not simple patriotism. Chip sees the Special Forces as the ideal model for his football team, a successful culture of elite performance built on hard work, fitness, sacrifice, humility and relentless practice. These are teams that recruit warriors of the same age, size and skills as NFL players for a much more important game. That's why he hired Navy Seal trainer Shaun Huls as his Sports Science Coordinator. Football players want to win, sure. But the Special Forces have perfected a regimen of training and mental preparation honed by Occam's sharpest razor: if it doesn't work, they die. Why wouldn't you try all of their methods?
Villanueva grew up on military bases in Europe, playing rugby in Spain and only two years of high school football -- in Belgium. At Army he started as a defensive lineman, switched to offensive tackle his junior year, then played wide receiver (not tight end!) as a senior, leading the team in touchdowns, receptions and yardage on a run-heavy squad. (Apparently, they didn't want to be mocked as "the Air Force.")
It will be tough for him to make the Eagles' roster. Villanueva admits to being out of football shape when he showed up for his regional combine. He hasn't played organized football since 2009, though pickup games on the Helicopter Landing Zone at Zare, Afghanistan had their own kind of challenge. "You play on the rocks and the gravel, and you fall and you can get injured pretty badly. Sometimes there would be shooting while we were playing, and we'd have to get down on the ground and whatnot," he told Albert Breer.
For this year, his best shot is probably the practice squad or special teams, where his experience on both OL and DL would be perfect for a punt kicking lineup. (He might have some potential for blocking kicks, too.)
For the long run, though, consider his similarity to Dion Jordan. That 6'6", 260-lb DE started out as a tight end -- ranked 10th in the nation coming out of high school by Scout.com -- but Oregon was able to recruit him because a "serious off-field injury" ended his senior year after six games, obscuring his raw ability.
Jordan really came into his own after Chip moved him to defensive end, and he ended up as the #3 overall draft pick last year. But Chip was happy to keep all of his offensive abilities in the toolbox. Jordan scored at least four times on 2-point conversions for Oregon, running it in against Kansas State in the 2013 Fiesta Bowl, and catching a pass from punter Jackson Rice against Arkansas State in 2012.