Tide's Hightower embraces leadership role

Alabama got the answer it had hoped for concerning Dont’a Hightower’s surgically repaired knee this spring.

He feverishly worked his way back in six months and actually went through some contact, his knee looking as strong as ever.

If he stays healthy, Hightower will undoubtedly be one of the best linebackers in the SEC, maybe one of the best in the country.

But for the Alabama defense to approach the dizzying standard it set a year ago during its national championship run, Hightower will have to take on much more of a leadership role.

It’s something he’s talked at length with Alabama coach Nick Saban about and a duty Hightower takes as seriously as chasing down a quarterback on third down.

“I’m ready. I led in high school,” Hightower said. “When I got here, I really didn’t have to lead. My freshman year, we had Rashad [Johnson]. And then last year, we had Rolando [McClain] and Javy [Arenas].

“I feel comfortable enough, knowing this defense, to be a leader, and I feel comfortable enough knowing that my teammates respect me. I just feel really confident in my knowledge of this defense and everything it takes to be a leader.”

The Crimson Tide will use Hightower in a number of different roles again this season. He’s their middle linebacker in their base defense, also plays in the nickel and moves to the pass-rushing jack linebacker position on passing downs.

The 6-foot-4 Hightower said he got up to around 270 pounds after his surgery and ended the spring at a little more than 260. He’d like to play at 255 next season.

“Just having him out there was good for everybody, even those of us on offense,” Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy said. “When you’re going against players of his caliber every day, it can’t help but make you better. You don’t see guys that fast, that big and that explosive every day.”

Watching his teammates win the national championship last season after going down the fourth week of the season was bittersweet for Hightower.

It killed him not being out there.

“The pain was there, and I didn’t want to do the rehab at first,” Hightower said. “But I looked out on the field and saw how much success we were having, and that just drove me more and more.

“I know the record says we won a national championship. But to me, it didn’t really feel like I did anything. We had a lot of success, and I’m glad that we did. But I can’t help but feel that I didn’t have a lot to do with it besides being a coach. That just motivates me more and more to get back to where we were last year and win another national championship.”

Hightower’s assessment of the 2010 version of Alabama’s defense is pretty simple.

“Relentless and fast,” he said.

And for anybody thinking that the Crimson Tide will be content with what they accomplished last season, Hightower said they might want to think again.

“I don’t feel like we’re thinking, ‘We won a national championship last year, so we don’t have to work as hard,’” Hightower said. “I think it’s more, ‘We know what it takes to get to the national championship again, so let’s not deviate from the plan we had last year. Let’s come in with more energy, more enthusiasm, more mental focus, and let’s do it again … even better.’”