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October 16, 2010It was one of those things most University of Alabama fans probably saw in the corner of their eye, but didn't fully comprehend. All they knew was that one of Florida's big offensive tackles had just gone airborne -- backward.
Yeah, that was Dont'a Hightower.
It was on third-and-5 at the Florida 23, when defensive coordinator Kirby Smart called for another interior blitz, which had been frustrating and plaguing the Gators all game long. Because the Crimson Tide had attacked with so many different players and from so many different angles, quarterback John Brantley didn't know what to expect except that it was coming again from someone, somewhere.
This time it was Hightower's turn, starting in the middle and swiftly moving to his left. However, when he hit the edge of the pocket the standout from Lewisburg, Tenn., didn't go straight for the passer but first drilled the lineman to free up both he and reserve linebacker Alex Watkins. With both bearing down a short pass-attempt was forced which cornerback DeQuan Menzie broke up.
Even though he didn't record a sack or tackle, that one play may have described Hightower more than any other at Alabama - or at least since he chased down a Virginia Tech ballcarrier after losing his helmet in the 2009 season opener.
"You have to be able to go out and just do it," junior Jack linebacker Courtney Upshaw said. "He's able because he has the talent and the skill to do it, to do it every play. He has the mindset that that he wants to be a playmaker. You have to have that mindset."
That's the key to understanding Hightower, and what he's all about. It helps explain how he was one of two true freshmen to be a regular starter in 2008; how he came back early from a devastating knee injury against Arkansas last season to be back on the practice field during spring workouts; how he's listed on the roster as the starting middle linebacker but can line up in numerous different spots and not skip a beat.
"I do what's asked of me," he said. "I'm glad I've become the versatile player I was last year. Some of the positions I do and some of the players we have I'm not necessarily the guy who makes the big play or makes the big sack. But I don't have a problem with that all as long as it's getting done, my teammates are happy and we're successful."
Previous to this season Hightower was primarily the weakside linebacker next to Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain (national linebacker of the year) in the interior before his injury, but had also spent time as the Jack linebacker/pass rusher in obvious passing situations.
That's nothing compared to what he's doing now.
"On one down he's the Mike (middle) linebacker, the next down he's a defensive end, and then he's dropping back into pass coverage," sophomore guard Barrett Jones said. "He definitely plays a bunch of positions and that's something that makes the defense, as far as us playing against it in practice, a little harder to navigate because he does play so many different places."
To give an idea of how rare that is, consider that Jones has seen that one other time, and he was an All-American.
"The guy who comes to mind, from South Carolina, was Eric Norwood last year," he continued. "He played a lot of linebacker and also D-end, but Eric was more of a speed guy whereas Dont'a when he gets down into pass-rush he's extremely strong and physical."
So much so that Hightower will occasionally line up in the interior of the defensive line to pass rush alongside defensive end Marcell Dareus. Or he'll be on the edge. Or he'll be where the middle linebacker traditionally lines up.
It's a huge contrast to both the way McClain played and led, and to whomever the next middle linebacker will be. Hightower is just different.
"I can't really say that one guy has sort of become the alpha-dog of the entire group," Saban said. "Ro was a special guy that way.
"I think everyone on the team responds to Dont'a, but there are other guys showing leadership as well."
Still, one gets the feeling that opposing quarterbacks would like to put giant bells on him to better know where Hightower before every snap. It's especially true after the coaching staff shuffled the linebackers heading into Southeastern Conference play at No. 10 Arkansas, inserting sophomore Nico Johnson at weakside, making changes at strongside and freshman C.J. Mosley earning more playing time, especially against the pass.
"We also moved Dont'a back to where he played most of his career, the money position, and I think he's a little more comfortable there," Saban said about dime coverage with six defensive backs. "I think the combination of those two things is what contributed to us playing the run a little bit better."
Although No. 1 Alabama was already leading the nation in scoring defense, it led to a convergence of sorts against No. 7 Florida. With Dareus and Upshaw coming off sprained ankle, Hightower losing one of his knee braces (and hopes to ditch the other before the end of the season), and everyone's roles redefined/clarified, the Crimson Tide dominated the Gators up front in the 31-6 rout.
"The No. 1 thing, I feel, was that a lot of guys just kind of grew up over the course of the season," Hightower said. "Some of the guys didn't know how to practice and didn't know what to expect in a hostile environment. It wasn't hostile because we were playing at home, but just from the fact it was a big game. They knew what to expect. I feel like everyone knew what they had to do for us to come out and win. I feel like we did that."
Subsequently, a lot of the questions regarding the 2010 defense started to be answered, especially those about how the Crimson Tide would replace nine starters, 13 players who were first or second on the depth chart at their respective positions, and having only two seniors with regular playing time (defensive end Luther Davis and linebacker Chavis Williams) .
Alabama looked and played both hungry and together, like the players hoped, and, well, expected. In terms of intensity it wasn't just a trademark Saban defense, but reminded many of last year's unit that won the national championship, only their way.
Few fixtures on the field, physically aggressive and the more it's backed up the greater the resistance -- especially in the red zone (inside the 20), where the Gators were overwhelmed.
"I feel it's about want-to," Hightower said. "You go back and you watch film on some of the plays we didn't get a turnover or anything and our penetration from the defensive line - if you get great penetration from the defensive line it sort of stops everything, play-action, toss, run, anything.
"I kind of feel like we wanted it a little bit more."