Hightower Emerges In New Position
Mark Ingram is one of the most dedicated players on Coach Nick Saban's Alabama football team, one reason that Ingram was the Heisman Trophy winner for the Crimson Tide's national championship team in 2009. One player who missed much of that 14-0 season is Dont'a Hightower, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the third game last year.
Hightower spent the rest of 2009 on the sidelines, watching Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain lead the Crimson Tide defense from his middle linebacker spot. Now Hightower, who was the starter at the other inside position, weakside linebacker, as a freshman in 2008 and in the first three games last year, is moving into McClain's spot, which is the signal-caller and leader of the defense.
Ingram said that Hightower has not only taken to his new role, but that the sophomore (he was awarded a medical redshirt from last season) is an improved player.
Ingram said, "He's studying a lot of film. He knows that defense well. I think he learned a lot from Ro (Rolando McClain), and he's trying to step into that role and be the best he can. He's doing a great job with the defense, telling everybody what to do. He's playing faster, he's playing smarter, and he knows a lot of what is going on as far as the entire defense, and what the offense is trying to do when they give him certain looks. He's a lot smarter and he's playing a lot faster."
Alabama's practices include a lot of first team offense vs. first team defense work, so Ingram has an up-close and personal view of the 6-4, 260-pound Hightower.
"He's a hard hitter," Ingram said. "He's tough. Big, fast, strong, pass rush. He's very versatile. He's tough to get away from running the ball and tough to block him. He can bull rush, he can swim move. He's very athletic. He gives problems for everyone on the other side of the ball."
Hightower said that he now feels comfortable at the demanding middle linebacker spot.
"Coming to the spring I was kind of hoping to stay playing weakside linebacker and Nico Johnson or Chris Jordan just plug in and play the Mike," he said. "But Coach Saban had a different thought, and it has worked out great. It was kind of a tough duty trying to replace Rolando ( because he was such a great player and knew the defense so perfect. It has been a tough journey, but I feel so comfortable in it now I feel like I've played Mike since I've been here. I feel comfortable making the checks and making all the calls and audibles, so I'm looking forward to the start of the season."
Alabama, pre-season number one in the nation, opens the season a week from Saturday hosting San Jose State at 6 p.m. CDT.
McClain was a first round draft choice of the Oakland Raiders, and he and Hightower have stayed in touch.
Hightower said, "I try not to bug him. I realize he was always going to be one of those mentor, role models for me, but I try not to bother him too much because I know he is busy doing something he loves for a living. But I talk to him and he gives me a little advice."
Hightower said the gist of that advice is that Hightower has to be a leader. "He knows there are a lot of young guys who don't know how to do things yet," Hightower said.
As an example, Hightower said he learned from McClain the importance of film study. Hightower said, "That's why Nico learned the defense so quickly and so well last year, because he bought in to what me and Ro were telling him last year when he got here, which is to be in the film room. We're always in the film room. If we're in the apartment, we're into the play book, asking questions. Football is the number one thing right now."
Hightower's injury was so bad that the early prognosis was that he would not be able to participate in spring practice and that it would be Fall camp before his status would be known. But in the spring, Hightower was back, doing virtually everything any other linebacker was doing. Now, he said, he thinks he is better than he was before the injury.
"I feel like a totally different player.," he said. "I feel like I play a lot faster, recognize things a lot quicker. That year off let me get in the film room and learn the defense, the ins and outs, why exactly we do this instead of this. I'm excited for the first game; I'm looking forward to it."
Hightower thinks the defense is improving, particularly since the Tide's first scrimmage two Saturdays back when quarterbacks combined for nearly 700 yards passing and nine touchdowns.
"We probably gave up more than has been given up in the history of Alabama scrimmages," he said. "We're way better than that."
Hightower was one of a handful of leaders who took to the floor to challenge the team following that scrimmage. That team meeting seems to have paid dividends.
"Everyone came in and was ready to work and showed great toughness," Hightower said. "Sometimes you just have to stand up and tell guys to come on and wake up, you've got to do the right things, you can't mess around, you can't go half speed. I feel like we look great and I'm looking to finalizing in the next week so we can get ready for the first game."
Saban said, "Dont'a has really done well, considering the circumstances. He is in a new role as a signal-caller. That's a greater responsibility, a little more responsibility for leadership. He's really done a good job with that. It's always difficult when you come back from an injury and you're out for a long time to get yourself back in the kind of shape that you used to be in. He's really done a good job of sustaining and continually improving that. He's got his weight down to where he has the speed and explosiveness back. We've just been really pleased with the leadership, what he's done, how he's affected the other players. He's done a good job of making the calls. He doesn't make a lot of errors out there in his new role. He has a good understanding of what we're doing. We're really pleased with him."
Hightower discussed the weight issue to some extent.
"That kind of goes to the nutritionist we have," he said. "I lost a lot of weight from the spring until now. She helps me out, tells me the things I should eat and things I shouldn't eat. I'm moving a lot faster, have a better mower. I'm at 260 right now. Leave off fried foods, eat more vegetables and fruits, no cola drinks."
What was weight?
"Not going to say."
But he was forthcoming on one subject of his new diet. His favorite vegetable:
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