Army has the smallest passing stats in the entire Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) but the biggest pass catcher.
At 6-foot-10, wide receiver Alejandro Villanueva ranks as the tallest player in major college football. As such, he is someone Vanderbilt’s defense cannot afford to overlook Saturday despite the fact that the Black Knights throw the ball an average of 13.6 times per game.
“Army will sometimes throw the ball straight up to him and I really feel sorry for the cornerbacks,” Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson said. “It's probably better than a 50-50 chance that he will come down with it.”
Villanueva, a junior, actually was Army’s starting left tackle in all 12 games last season. In the two seasons prior to that, he spent time as a guard, a tight end and a defensive end.
When first-year coach Rich Ellerson decided he needed a sizable receiving target for his version of the triple option offense, he selected Villanueva for the job.
"I continue to be impressed (with his transition from offensive line),” Ellerson said. “… He continues to play the ball better and better. We just need to utilize him.”
After being shut out in the opener Villaneuva caught at least two passes in each of the next three games, including six for 77 yards against Iowa State. He had one touchdown reception in each of those three contests but was kept off the stat sheet again last Saturday in a loss to Tulane.
He is tied for the team lead with 12 receptions, but his 191 receiving yards are nearly double that of his next most-productive teammate. Plus, his three touchdown receptions constitute the entire Army team total.
“He's never going to be perceived as a great, skilled wide receiver, but he's a big, strong guy,” Ellerson said. “He can get up, he adjusts to the ball well, and he's catching the ball better and better all the time. There are some plays there for us.”
The majority of Army’s plays still involve a handoff.
Its 29 completions are second fewest (Air Force has 28) among the 120 FBS programs and its 341 passing yards easily are the least. By comparison, the Commodores are 114th in passing yards, but their per game average of 147.2 is more than double that of Army’s.
Yet it’s that very approach that creates opportunities for big plays by the big man.
“A lot of times he’s the featured guy on play-action,” Johnson said. “They’ll fake in there and try to get you thinking about the option. Then they’ll loop him on down there.”
Villanueva dropped 30 pounds, to 285, in order to make himself a better fit at his newest position.
That means he’ll still have advantages of eight inches and 80 pounds over the Commodores’ biggest cornerback, Myron Lewis, and even more so over the likes of Casey Hayward (6-0, 182), Jamie Graham (6-0, 196) and Eddie Foster (5-10, 170).
“He’s a pretty big guy, but he looks like he can move pretty well,” Hayward said. “… I’m just going to go out there and play.”