Alabama has fielded some talented players over the last decade, but no positional unit has benefited more from the addition of Nick Saban than the inside linebackers.
Since Saban joined the Crimson Tide in 2007, Alabama has five inside linebackers that moved on to play in the NFL. Reggie Ragland was the most recent one after he was taken by the Buffalo Bills with the 41st pick in the 2016 draft. In addition to Ragland, three out of the five players on that list were taken in the top two rounds.
Rolando McClain has experienced an up and down career (mostly down) since being drafted by the Oakland Raiders with the 8th overall pick in the 2010 draft, but C.J. Mosley has been a productive player for a Ravens team that saw him finish second for the Defensive Rookie of the Year in 2014. It has been a pleasure watching Mosley grow as a player for Ozzie Newsome’s Ravens, but he hasn’t been the best linebacker to come out of the Alabama since Saban came on-board. That title belongs to Dont’a Hightower.
High School - The Road to Alabama
Hightower attended Marshall County High School in Lewisburg, Tennessee. Even though he was from the Volunteer State, Tuscaloosa was the closest SEC school to him that wasn’t Vanderbilt.
The 6’3 248 pound linebacker was an excellent high school player, but the four-star wasn’t as highly recruited as some may think. The fact that Hightower only held offers from Alabama, Auburn, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech is a decision that most football programs probably regret.
Following an excellent junior season that included 98 tackles, two sacks and seven forced fumbles, Hightower followed it up with an even more successful senior year at MCHS. After switching from linebacker to defensive end, he was able to put up 168 tackles, five interceptions, five forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries. The versatility was there, and Nick Saban was more than willing to jump on the opportunity to add a player with Hightower’s talents to his defense.
After a long recruitment, Hightower decided to join the University of Alabama and committed on November 14th, 2007. It was a decision that would be mutually beneficial for both Hightower and the Crimson Tide.
College - Taking the Next Step
As a true freshman, Hightower immediately stepped on campus and earned a starting job next to All-American linebacker Rolando McClain. The defense had already started to show improvement under Saban, but the dynamic duo of McClain and Hightower was the icing on the cake.
McClain was the field general of the defense who could make impact plays but still manage to make sure everyone else was doing their job and in the right position. Hightower learned a lot from McClain during their one year of starting alongside each other, and it was apparent that after Hightower had recovered from a knee injury he suffered during his sophomore year, he was ready to take the reins as a leader of the Tide’s defense.
After taking a medical redshirt following that knee injury his sophomore year, Hightower was thrilled to be back on the field chasing down running backs and quarterbacks alike. Even though the hustle was there, anyone who watched him play could tell that he hadn’t fully recovered from the knee injury that had ended his 2009 season early. He finished the 2010 season with 69 total tackles and only 3.5 tackles for loss. It wasn’t until Hightower’s redshirt junior year that he really became the player everyone was expecting him to be following a promising freshman season in 2008.
Hightower’s last season in Tuscaloosa was by far his best. He finished the year with 85 total tackles, 11 tackles for loss, four sacks and one interception. His versatility is what really stood out to NFL teams, and it ended up being an attribute that made the All-American linebacker from Alabama a coveted prospect by four-time Super Bowl winning head coach Bill Belichick.
The NFL - Where He Stands Today
The New England Patriots were looking to rebuild a defense that had lost some key contributors in recent years. Franchise cornerstones like Tedy Bruschi, Willie McGinest and Richard Seymour were long gone, and the defense was looking for that next wave of guys to come in and become premier players in the league. That’s where Hightower came in.
After using their first of two first-round picks on former Syracuse defensive end Chandler Jones, Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots knew they needed to add a versatile defender like Hightower to the mix. They decided to take him with the 25th pick in the 2012 draft, and it’s a decision that has paid off thus far in Hightower’s short career.
Up to this point, Hightower hasn’t put up a monster statistical season. His highest tackle total came during the 2013 season when he put up 97 tackles in 16 games, and his highest sack total in a season includes only six that he managed to post as a third-year pro during the 2014 season. Even though the statistics don’t reflect his impact, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been one of the better defenders in the NFL since joining the Patriots in 2012.
Belichick has always valued versatile players like Rob Ninkovich, Mike Vrabel and Devin McCourty. He loves to move players around and cause opposing offense coordinators headaches. Hightower is the perfect type of player to do just that. He is an effective run defender when playing inside linebacker, but he also has the necessary skill-set to bump outside and get after the quarterback on passing downs. He has always been know for his great attitude, and he has reportedly continued that trend by becoming a positive presence in the Patriots’ locker room.
It’s great to see players like Dont’a Hightower succeed. He is a great player on the field and an even better person off of it. Tedy Bruschi is one of the best linebackers to ever put on a Patriots uniform, and for him to give Hightower his blessing to wear his no. 54 only speaks to the respect that Hightower has earned by others since coming into the NFL.
The Patriots are currently in talks of extending Hightower to keep him around for the foreseeable future. In comparison, the Patriots decided to move on from fellow former first-rounder Chandler Jones before his contract negotiations became a problem. While that may have been looked at as a negative for Jones, it is a positive sign for Hightower’s future in Foxborough.