Dont'a Hightower On Return Path
Alabama Coach Nick Saban was visibly affected by the injury to Dont'a Hightower last September 26. Bama was playing against Arkansas when Hightower went down with a season-ending knee injury. A routine play and a usually routine cut block resulted in Hightower being down and out.
Saban said following Bama's 35-7 win, "The initial prognosis is not good. And there's a guy right there, he doesn't get talked about enough. He's a fine young man, a great leader on our team, one of our best football players on our entire team. The best pass-rusher we have, very good linebacker. Plays in the nickel, athletic size, and I hate to see any player get hurt, ever, but that one there is a good one."
Up until the start of spring practice on March 12 (just before the Tide took nine days off for The University's spring break), Saban nonchalantly gave an injury report. There weren't serious injuries. Dont'a Hightower had a little calf pull, but should be fine to do everything.
Almost since the release of the extent of the injury, two torn ligaments in his knee, the word had been that Hightower would not be able to participate in spring contact work, but it was believed he would be recovered enough for fall camp and the 2010 season.
Following Monday's practice, Bama's second in shorts and helmets, Hightower said, "I feel great. They say it's supposed to take a year for it to heal, but I feel like I didn't have surgery. I feel great."
Hightower, a 6-4, 255-pound upcoming junior, said it was difficult to get back. He said he worked "day-in and day-out. I felt like I didn't have any time to myself. It was tood hard. But I knew I had to do it in order to be where I am today, so I just swallowed it. I actually began to look forward to the hard work. I didn't want to be one of those guys who gets injured and is never the same again. That was the motivation.
"All of the guys who got hurt (defensive lineman Damion Square and running back Jeramie Griffin were also lost to season-ending knee injuries last fall) worked on the mental part (in rehabilitation)."
Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy has watched Hightower's return with admiration.
"When you're an athlete and being around an injury like that, you understand how tough it is to come back," McElroy said. "It's so much rehab it's ridiculous. It's so long and so grueling and when you see the team having success like we were having last season, Dont'a was itching more than anybody to get back on the field. I think that really motivated him.
"He looks fantastic. He's in great shape. He's flying around. He's really, really become a great leader for our defense. You can't say enough good things about Dont'a. He's such a great person. He gives great effort. He picks up on things quickly. That's why he was able to play so young. He's a great player.
"Anytime you see a guy go down with a knee injury, you question their future altogether. I've seen a lot of guys come back from that injury not the same player, but I can't say that about Dont'a. He worked as hard as he could in the weightroom and in rehab and he's come back not having missed a beat."
Both Saban and Hightower have left some wiggle room as to whether he'll take part in scrimmage work this spring. Both have said the medical staff will make the determination.
"But I'm looking forward to the scrimmages," Hightower said. "I feel like I could play a game right now, but it's up to them."
He said there had been "a little altercation, guys getting a little rowdy," in which he was involved in Monday's practice. He explained that it has been seven months since he has had any contact, "so I was out there trying pretty hard."
And, he said, that seems to be the mindset of everyone, from warm-ups all the way through drills. "There's not a down or a rep that one guy lays back," he said. "Everybody wants to play and it's being shown."
He also looks forward to his first game in the fall. Somehow, one thinks he wouldn't want to be the San Jose State tailback.
"I'm probably going to want to take somebody's head off," Hightower said. "I'm looking forward to catching a running back or even a lineman, just dumping him off and making a big play."
Hightower is looking forward, not back. He said he is motivated by the perception that Alabama's defense will fall off because of the loss of so many stars and starters from the 2009 national championship team. "We lost a lot of seniors," he said, "but I think with the young guys we have this year, if we can teach them techniques and the way to do things right, I feel like we have a little more talent this year."
A question to be answered is where Hightower will play. Will he go back to his weakside position, where Nico Johnson is back after replacing Hightower? Will he move into the middle linebacker spot where Rolando McClain was the nation's best last year? Or might he go to an outside position, where he worked briefly last year, to take advantage of his pass rushing skills?
In the past, Saban has pointed out that Hightower has the ability to play in different positions depending on the circumstances.
Hightower said, "Whatever Coach Saban needs me to do, I'm there for it. I'm looking forward to being back. Whatever he needs me to do. If I've got to go play the three technique (nose tackle), I'll go play the three technique. I'm just looking forward to being back out there."
Although he has played just his freshman year and four games of his sophomore season, Hightower is regarded as a leader of the defense.
"I'm looking forward to it," Hightower responded to the challenge of leadership. "I think there are couple of others guys who could do just as good. I don't think it should be just one leader for the defense. I think it should be for everybody who wants to lead and be great. I'm looking forward to taking over the role."
He may also be called upon to call defensive signals, a job McClain had handled.
Hightower said McClain "was like Coach Saban on the defense. Sometimes he would actually correct the coaches in practice. That takes a lot of mental focus and a lot of mental toughness. Where I'm at right now, I'm starting to learn the defense as well as he did. Hopefully by the time the season comes, I'll know it as well as he did, if not better."
Hightower admits that not being able to finish last season as Alabama went undefeated and won the national championship. "It was very painful," he said. It's a once in a lifetime thing. But you've got to take what you've got and that's what I did. I was still there for the team. I was extremely excited that we won. I missed out, but hopefully we'll get back to the same stage and take it back again."
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