The Right Decision For Hightower

When Alabama lost football stars Rolando McClain and Kareem Jackson following their junior seasons at the conclusion of the 2009 Bama national championship year, a Crimson Tide assistant coach said it is part of the plan, and to look for more of the same. Both McClain and Jackson were first round draft choices.

Alabama Coach Nick Saban expects to recruit players who are ready to go to the National Football League when they are eligible to be drafted following their third seasons, said the assistant coach. It is the goal at Bama to have more and more of those players, because they are the best players.

Thus far, three players from the 2010 team have elected to go the professional route prior to their final seasons of eligibility. No one would suggest that tailback Mark Ingram, wide receiver Julio Jones, and defensive lineman Marcell Dareus are not ready for the legal play-for-pay game. All are projected as first round draft choices.

What was important in last week's announcements is that a player who is not projected as a first round draft choice has made the reasonable decision to return. Linebacker Dont'a Hightower also said that fellow linebacker Courtney Upshaw has also made the decision to return to Bama for the 2011 season.

Saban makes it a point to advise his players on what is best for them. He does not hesitate to shove them out of the Bama nest if they are projected as high draft choices. He is also a proponent of getting an education, whether they take the early pro dollars or not. As big as those NFL bucks are, it's a relatively short career.

As has been noted, at least two other upcoming seniors are speculated as still considering the jump to the NFL. Safety Mark Barron suffered a serious injury in the final regular season game of the year, which could affect his status. Wide receiver Marquis Maze has had two solid seasons, but most would consider his pro prospects as modest.

Hightower, who came to Bama in the signing class of 2008 with Ingram, Julio Jones, et al, not only returns for his fourth year, but also has another season of eligibility remaining. And the reasons for both his return and his additional possible year are the same: the injury to his knee.

Against Arkansas in 2009, Hightower was caught by a legal cut block. His knee was severely damaged, resulting in surgery. He was not expected to return to practice until the fall of 2010, but surprised everyone by returning for spring practice last year. He was granted a medical redshirt, which means he repeated his sophomore season.

Hightower said it is "weird" that he's not going out with some of the men he came to Alabama with.  "Everybody wants to go three and out," he said. "It's kind of a big deal. Some people are blessed to do it, go three and out, and some have to stay an extra year or even five years. But I know we're always going to stay close. I think the '08 was a close-knit group, and we're always going to stay close. I wish the best of luck for them."

Although in the spring he was pronounced as rehabilitated, a diagnosis repeated in fall camp, Hightower did not have a blazing start to the 2010 season.

Hightower, 6-4, 258, acknowledged as much Friday in discussing his decision. "They were kind of questioning my knee, that at the start of the season I wasn't playing as fast as I had been and as fast as I did in the last couple of games," he said. "I started getting a little more positive feedback after the Florida game. I started playing a lot faster, a lot quicker."

Hightower said that he would begin off-season work with diligence, saying he thinks there's a lot of room for him to improve. Hightower was in on 67 tackles last fall (29 solo), about the same as his freshman year in 2008 (64 tackles, 26 solo).

Hightower was a bit late meeting reporters after the initial announcements. He admitted he had an upset stomach.

"Things didn't fall in place the way I wanted them to this year, but that's fine," Hightower said. "We've got as real good football team coming in next year. I'm very happy about the defense. I'm looking forward to working with the young guys and getting back on the field. So it's more of a positive than a negative thing."

Asked if it was a tough decision to forego the NFL draft, Hightower didn't give a direct answer. He said it wasn't as tough a decision for him as it had been for those who elected to turn pro. And that was a theme of Ingram, Dareus and, particularly, Jones, that there was some hesitation in leaving Alabama early.

Hightower said the information he had was that he would have been a third or fourth round draft pick.

He also said it is important to him and his family that he will earn his degree in December 2011.

Although he said it was possible that he would play at Alabama in both 2011 and 2012, he clearly hopes that is not the case. "Hopefully I'll play to my expectations as well as Coach Saban's and everybody else, my teammates' and coaching staff," he said.

Hightower expects Alabama to have a good defense. He noted that the only two men lost are Dareus and senior defensive end Luther Davis. And, he added, "probably Mark Barron."

"I feel like we have a lot," Hightower said. "We need to have everyone on the same page. Everyone knows the game plan, the scheme. We can build a really, really good dominant defense, like back to when we won the national championship, playing defense just as well. Hopefully, we have guys who are going to adapt to it, who have matured a lot, and hopefully next year we'll have just as good a defense as we had against Michigan State."

Alabama finished the season with a 49-7 win over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl.

If Barron does return, it will mean Bama has "down-the-line cousins" on defense. Hightower and Barron learned this fall they are distant cousins. Their mothers were chatting after a game and found the connection.

In addition to the likelihood of a strong defense, Hightower said there is another positive to his return. College life is pretty good. "It gets more and more fun," he said. "There aren't too many places you can go and have 100,000 people screaming for you and where they have such high standards.

"I'm looking forward to that."

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