The Pittsburgh Steelers franchise has a real knack for finding diamonds in the rough. What some people would call luck, I consider to be the culmination of the continuous efforts and due diligence invested by the franchise and their scouting department. The Steel Curtain dynasty of the 70's was built, in large part, on the foundation of these efforts. Modern day scouting has changing drastically from those days, but valuable gems can still be found.
Talented players can often be pulled from the trash heap and their careers resurrected in the right circumstances. Some players are just not good fits for some franchises, and need a change of scenery to blossom. Other players need the patience and superior coaching required to make a position change at the NFL level. Sometimes it is a little bit of both.
Alejandro Villanueva immediately comes to mind. Blessed with enormous size and surprising agility, he was athletic enough to play the tight end position at Army. He even saw snaps as a 6'9" wide receiver, which has to be some kind of record. After serving three tours of duty, Villanueva tried out unsuccessfully for multiple teams, at various positions. He struggled to get his NFL career up and running. Then the Steelers came calling.
The Steelers gave Big Al, as he has affectionately become known, crystal clear instructions on what they expected for him to make the team. Commit his workout schedule and diet toward adding muscle to his massive frame, and working tirelessly with the coaching staff toward developing the footwork of a top shelf left tackle. The Steelers committed to Big Al, and he committed to honing his craft. That was two Pro Bowls ago. As only a former Army Ranger can appreciate, mission accomplished.
The Steelers may have just found their next great reclamation project hiding in plain sight, and like Villanueva, this cat is enormous. His name is Zach Banner, and he is quickly becoming a fan favorite in the Steel City. He also just so happens to be contributing meaningful minutes on the football field. Another reclamation project identified and developed by the Steelers.
Villanueva and Banner share many similarities on the football field, besides the left tackle position, where Big Al is the entrenched starter, and Banner is his understudy. Banner is about an inch shorter in height, but actually weighs more than Big Al. That has been an recurring issue for Banner, who has struggled to display the discipline necessary to stay at a optimal playing weight. So while Villanueva was challenged by the Steelers to add mass to his lengthy frame, Banner was challenged to do just the opposite. Yet again, mission accomplished.
Zach 'Hulk' Banner has impressive bloodlines. He is the son of Lincoln Kennedy, who was a College All American left tackle for the Washington Huskies and a member of the College Football Hall of Fame. Kennedy was also an accomplished NFL standout, participating in three Pro Bowls and earning two All Pro awards. That's quite the legacy to live up to, but football success seemed to come easy for young Zach. At least initially.
After being named a High School All American twice and ranked the second best offensive tackle prospect in his class, Zack took his talents to USC. Although he did manage to make all conference his senior year, he never seemed to live up to all the expectations.
Unlike Big Al, Banner was an NFL Draft selection. He was a fourth round pick of the Indianapolis Colts in the 2017 NFL Draft, but was waived prior to the season. He was eventually signed and released by both the Cleveland Browns and the Carolina Panthers, before signing with the Steelers in 2018. His signing was viewed as a afterthought by the media, because even though his talents were obvious, his commitment to his craft, not so much.
Somebody was apparently able to light the pilot light in Banner's oven this off season, seeing how Banner was able to commit himself to losing a substantial amount of weight prior to training camp. His footwork and agility has shown marked improvement.
Now Zach Banner's future looks bright. He has found a home in Pittsburgh and has embraced his new role in the offense.
Don't be surprised if one day in the not so distant future you see Zach Banner lining up as a starting tackle for the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line. I have just one warning for the opposition. Don't make him angry! You won't like him when he is angry!