If you’re going to play defense for Nick Saban, you better be versatile.
And ideally, you better be able to fill a couple of different roles, especially with Alabama playing as much situational defense as it does in its 3-4 scheme.
Dont’a Hightower exemplifies the kind of hybrid player Saban is looking for, and it’s no coincidence that Saban called him the best linebacker in the country when he was recruiting Hightower as part of the Crimson Tide’s star-studded 2008 signing class.
“He’s already played a lot of good football for us, but his role on this team is only going to grow,” Saban said.
The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Hightower will take over for Rolando McClain this season as Alabama’s middle linebacker. He’ll call the signals, make the checks and be the quarterback on defense when the Crimson Tide are in their base set.
But on passing downs, Hightower will become a defensive end. He’ll slide outside, put his hand down and rush the passer. And there may even be times when the Crimson Tide are in their nickel defense that he drops into coverage.
“That’s part of the fun of playing in this defense,” said Hightower, who’s battled back from a season-ending knee injury in the fourth game a year ago. “There are so many layers to this defense. We’re always coming at a team from a different angle, throwing a different wrinkle at them and using guys in different roles.
“I take a lot of pride in being able to move around and give us something against the run and the pass. That’s what this defense is based on. We want to dictate the matchups, not them.”
Hightower has tremendous speed for a guy his size. In fact, he’s faster than McClain was covering sideline to sideline and has excellent burst off the edge when he’s rushing the passer.
One of the keys in utilizing Hightower extensively this season as a pass-rusher is somebody else, namely Chris Jordan or Nico Johnson, demonstrating that they can handle all the duties of middle linebacker when Hightower does move outside.
Last season, McClain stayed in the middle and didn’t move around. A big part of his value was knowing the Alabama defense inside and out, and he ran things from his middle linebacker position.
“He was a good blitzer. He was a playmaker. He made a lot of plays,” Saban said of McClain. “But he was the signal-caller and stayed in that position all the time. I’m hopeful that Dont’a will not just have to be the signal-caller all the time, so he can play some of those other roles as well, because they are tremendous assets for him and would be assets for our defense.”
Hightower scoffs when he hears somebody say the Crimson Tide can’t possibly be as hungry as they were last season after going 14-0 and winning the national championship.
“I think we’ll be even hungrier, especially on defense,” Hightower said. “We want our own ring, and we all have something to prove. I know I do. I don’t want people to be able to say, ‘He came back from his knee injury, but was never the same again.’
“I want my best football to be ahead of me.”