Highsmith Ready for Encore

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Talent was never an issue for Erik Highsmith during his freshman season at North Carolina last fall, but a lack of size, strength and knowledge presented plenty of obstacles. The sophomore has addressed those concerns and is ready for a breakout sophomore campaign.

Highsmith arrived in Chapel Hill as a relative unknown recruiting prospect from Vanceboro, N.C. that played his high school ball at West Craven High School. But it didn't take long for the wide receiver, affectionately known as "Mookie" to friends and family, to make a splash on the college football scene.

After failing to notch a reception in the season opener against The Citadel, Highsmith hauled in 16 catches for 279 yards and two touchdowns during his next three contests, including a pair of 100-yard performances against East Carolina and Georgia Tech.

But opposing defenses quickly adapted to the slender receiver, disguising looks and getting physical to limit his effectiveness. That approach worked – Highsmith managed just 21 catches for 146 yards in his final games. His best showing during that stretch was a six-reception, 38-yard performance against Boston College in November.

The difficulty of the transition from high school to college may have hid in the shadows early on, but that reality almost always makes itself known.

"It really set in after the first couple of games," Highsmith said. "I was just trying to get blocks and safeties were just throwing me down to the ground. I was like, ‘Dang.' So then I just started cutting them a little bit; that's all I had to do. This offseason they really got me lifting heavy weights hard every day. I've gained about 15 pounds."

The 6-foot-3, 185-pounder has increased his speed and quickness, in addition to packing on the muscle.

"I feel better," Highsmith said. "I'm in good shape. I feel as good as I've ever felt in my life."

But his growth this offseason was not limited to the physical aspects of his game. Practice reps and film room study have been crucial in building his football knowledge, especially when considering that Highsmith admitted that he didn't always run the correct routes last season.

"I'm a lot more confident," Highsmith said. "I'm stronger, durable. I know a lot more about what's going on – what a defense's scheme is, what they're trying to do and what the coverages look like. I'm also more of a leader out there. I've grown into a leader. So the game is just becoming more comfortable to me."

One of the benefits of being a wide receiver on this current Tar Heel roster is the immense talent located on the other side of the ball. Starting senior cornerbacks Kendric Burney and Charles Brown project as early NFL Draft picks next April.

"It's good work for me," Highsmith said. "It makes me better. When I first got here, I couldn't do anything against them. They would press me at the line and I just couldn't do nothing. But then they gave me pointers about how to get their hands off me. Kendric Burney and Deunta [Williams] would tell me little things to help and I just kept working at it. Now it's hard for those guys to cover me in practice."

It also helps that the sophomore now has complete confidence in not just one, but two quarterbacks that could possibly be throwing him the ball this season.

"T.J. [Yates] had a mediocre season last year," Highsmith said. "But we had young receivers, so I kind of blame it on us, kind of on him. But since the end of last season, he has just been grinding it out. Telling us to watch film with him, go catch balls whenever we can, before class, after class. He just really wants to get it done this year.

"Bryn [Renner] wants to do it, too. He's a young talent. He competes with T.J. every day. Both of the guys are good. It really wouldn't matter to me who started."

Highsmith was sidelined for a full week in the early part of training camp due to a concussion. During a practice on the Kenan Stadium field, the sophomore ran a deep out route, jumped for the ball and was undercut by a defensive back, falling awkward and banging his head on the turf.

Highsmith got up off the ground and thought he was fine, but Yates called the trainers onto the field after the wide receiver kept asking the same question over and over again.

Those concussion concerns are in the past, however, just like the struggles that surrounded him during his freshman campaign. Things are different now.

"I feel like a veteran," said Highsmith, who is hoping for 70 catches and All-ACC honors in ‘10. "I know I've still got a long ways to go, but I feel good."

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