Velazquez off to surprise start at Wyoming
Four years ago, Alonzo Velazquez wasn't even playing football.
As a freshman at Janesville Parker High, the sport wasn't really even on his radar. And Velazquez only went out as a sophomore when friends and coaches talked him into it.
Now, on Saturday, the former Vikings offensive lineman will likely start his sixth consecutive game at right tackle for the University of Wyoming. The Cowboys are 3-2 heading into a Mountain West Conference game at Utah State.
From not playing, to earning all-conference honors, to skipping a redshirt season to becoming an immediate starter at the Football Bowl Subdivision level, it's safe to say Velazquez's rise has been meteoric.
“It's been a shock for me,” Velazquez said in a phone interview last week from Laramie, Wyoming, hours after the city, sitting at 7,200 feet, saw six inches of snow fall. “I did not expect that I would be contributing this early in my career here.”
Velazquez, now listed at 6-foot-6 and 288 pounds on the Wyoming roster, drew Division I attention late in his high school career due to his size. At that point, however, almost all parties agreed that they were recruiting based on speculation, as Velazquez's talent was raw, and he'd need to bulk up to fill out his frame.
When he signed his letter of intent on Feb. 1, even he kind of presumed that he would redshirt this season.
If that was the plan, Velazquez's work ethic and the Cowboys' needs on the front line forced the team to call an audible this fall.
Velazquez arrived in the summer to work out, acclimate to the altitude and to start putting on weight. He said after two weeks of learning plays and taking reps with most of the freshmen, he was moved to a second-team spot on the offensive line. He took reps at left and right tackle, and coaches told him to be prepared in case he needed to play in a game.
A second-team all-Big Eight Conference selection last season, Velazquez performed well enough in his new role that the coaching staff decided to experiment with him as part of the team's No. 1 offensive line unit.
“Then it was like a week before the game, and Ryan (Cummings) was still at guard and I was still at tackle, so I asked my coach, 'When are we switching him back to tackle?'” Velazquez recalled. “He said, 'Oh, we're not. This is probably what we're going to stick with.'”
Just like that, Velazquez was starting Week 1, when Wyoming played at Iowa.
“The biggest thing the coaches told me was to not be scared and to not get too caught up,” Velazquez said of starting as a true freshman against a Big Ten team in his first college game. “When we took the first snap, I wasn't nervous at all. I was ready and wanted to get going.”
Potentially adding to the pressure, Velazquez and his linemates are tasked with protecting quarterback Josh Allen. Allen has been projected as a first-round NFL draft pick, and heading into the season was tabbed as a potential No. 1 overall pick.
“At first, it kind of hits you that you're blocking for a quarterback that's going to be in the NFL,” Velazquez said. “But you can't really have that feeling on the field, you have to take him as another teammate.”
Velazquez doesn't overhype how he has performed to this point. He knows there have been some freshman mistakes, and Allen has used his legs and arm to fight through a fair bit of defensive pressure despite being sacked just nine times in five games.
Most importantly for Velazquez, he has played well enough to keep the starting job.
“For what they expected, I think I'm doing fairly well,” Velazquez said. “There are things to work on; there always is. But for now, I think they're happy with how I'm playing.
“The speed of the game is different. You've got to react so much faster, think on the fly ... and it's a lot of thinking. You have to keep your eyes up. Like, if a linebacker, comes down, it can change the whole blocking scheme.”
His mother, Guadalupe Feldman, and step-father, Tom, have been out to see Velazquez play. He returned to Janesville for a quick trip during a week off before the season began this fall and has heard from many friends and former teammates who have watched him play on TV.
And as a college freshman who went from non-rostered to Division I starter in the span of four years, Velazquez has a message for anyone, especially current Vikings, hoping to follow a similar path:
“The biggest thing is that people don't think it works, what we do at Parker,” Velazquez said. “I want kids at Parker, who play football, to know that what the coaches are doing, it works and will help you in the long run. You can go far, no matter where you're from, what position you play, what background you came from. Listen to your coaches, and you can go places.
“It works, and I'm proof of it.”