Steelers hope former walk-on Alex Highsmith is their latest small-school gem

UNC Charlotte assistant head coach Marcus West has heard the critics: If Alex Highsmith was good enough to play in the NFL, he wouldn't have played college football for the 49ers.

Something must be wrong with the edge rusher, right?

West heard versions of this question from NFL scouts visiting Charlotte's facility last fall. His answer remains consistent.

"Stop trying to pick his deficiencies and go find out why you would take him," West said in a phone interview with ESPN, "and you'll find a lot more about why you would take him than why not. Any deficiencies he's got? Tell him. Because he's self-made and he's a student of the game and he will fix his deficiencies.

"All he's done is do what people told him he can't do."

The Pittsburgh Steelers, on the board in the third round of the NFL draft last month, agreed and selected Highsmith with the 102nd overall pick. The organization has never been afraid to take players from small schools. Terry Bradshaw (Louisiana Tech), Joe Greene (North Texas State) and Mel Blount (Southern) formed the foundation of the 1970s dynasty.

By choosing Highsmith, the Steelers signaled they believe he can be the next piece of the dominant defense that began taking shape in 2019.

Highsmith's draft stock soared in a year in which it tanked for some small-school prospects because of fewer evaluation opportunities due to the coronavirus pandemic. The Steelers did their homework; West estimates he saw every Steelers scout come through the 49ers' building. Impressed with Highsmith's self-motivation and high character, the Steelers channeled the drafts of the 1970s, when they relied more exclusively on on-field evaluations.

That's why the Steelers felt confident taking the under-the-radar edge rusher with the intention of converting him to the organization's prestigious outside linebacker position.

"First time I saw him was at the East-West [Shrine Bowl] practices," Pittsburgh general manager Kevin Colbert said after the draft. "You could tell that he was above where we thought he might have been going into that because he kind of stood out in the practices. Long, fast, athletic guy. He continued to impress us athletically at the combine.

"We all think this kid isn't anywhere near where he might be somewhere down the road."

Highsmith entered Eugene Ashley High in Wilmington, North Carolina, as a self-described "chubby freshman," but transformed his body with the help of a 7 a.m. weightlifting class and a 4- to 5-inch growth spurt.

As a junior at Eugene Ashley in 2013, Highsmith was named Most Improved Player with 68 tackles and two forced fumbles. A year later, he was team captain and MVP with second team All-Area and first team All-Mideastern Conference nods. But the scholarship offers never came.

Highsmith opted to take his chances at Charlotte, a program that was less than 5 years old. He walked on in 2015, and the summer before his redshirt sophomore season, he earned a scholarship. A breakout year in 2018 followed by a position change from a 4-technique lineman to a pass-rusher led to a dominating senior season.

West, who joined Charlotte's program as assistant head coach and co-defensive coordinator in 2019, recognized the 6-foot-3, 248-pound Highsmith's pass-rush potential two or three padded practices into fall camp. Highsmith began learning the position soon after, and he saw results against opponents like Clemson and Appalachian State. A few weeks into the season, NFL scouts started showing up more frequently.

"It was things that Alex Highsmith put on film early in camp where he moved differently, he worked differently," Charlotte coach Will Healy said. "And he was learning so fast and working so hard that we thought, ‘Man, this guy, he'll play at the next level.' And then I think he went from a guy that you're convinced can play at the next level to a third-round draft pick."

With the help of West, Highsmith went from a walk-on to third-team All-American sack machine, setting school records for sacks in a game (4.5), season (14) and career (20).

His motivation and work ethic, byproducts of the structure instilled by Alex's parents -- both educators -- are why West believes Highsmith had the tools to make the leap and transition from Charlotte to the NFL.

"He's a student of the game," West said. "He bought in. He's self-reliant. You don't have to tell him how to work. He pushes himself. He's consistent in everything that he does, very mature kid. He began to develop a passion for rushing the passer, which absolutely changed his life."

When it comes to drafting small-school guys, the Steelers have long proven they have guts.

When COVID-19 forced a swift adjustment to the spring evaluation period, Colbert urged his staff to remember the 1974 draft.

Without the modern-day scouting luxuries, the Steelers evaluated players on their pure football abilities, trusting their eyes and gut instincts.

"Those guys relied on what they watched as football players," Colbert said before the draft. "They did some individual timing here and there, but there was no pro day, there were no extensive interviews, there was no combine, there was no physicals. They just drafted what they thought were football players. And I reminded our guys that was the best draft in NFL history."

The Steelers navigated a 17-round draft, picking four future Hall of Famers and signing another in Donnie Shell as an undrafted free agent. Their second and third picks, Jack Lambert and John Stallworth, were small-school products from Kent State and Alabama A&M, respectively. Of the Steelers' 21 picks that year, five were defensive players from small schools.

Even before that, the Steelers took big swings on small-school guys, picking Greene, Bradshaw and Frank Lewis (Grambling) with their first-round selections from 1969-1971, and Blount in the third round of the 1970 draft.

"They were the first organization I can remember that had some tremendous success with small college players," ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said of the Steelers. "... Their history has always suggested that they don't care. They find guys. The small-school guys then had to battle. … That's why I always say the Steeler Way is just whoever has that edge."

They haven't relied on the same volume of small-school players recently, but the last time the Steelers didn't draft a player from a non-Power 5 school was 2008. In the past decade, the Steelers have selected six non-Power 5 products in the third round or higher, including 2019 second-round receiver Diontae Johnson (Toledo) and 2016 third-round defensive tackle Javon Hargrave (South Carolina State). By comparison, the Patriots lead the league with 11 small-school players drafted in the top three rounds over the past decade, while the Redskins selected a league-low two in the first three rounds over the same time.

Ulysees Gilbert III, a Steelers sixth-round pick out of Akron in 2019, believes the franchise's knack for finding under-the-radar prospects comes from the organization's stability and identity.

"They believe in guys that don't always get all the publicity," Gilbert said. "At the end of the day, there's so many great athletes all over the country and all over different schools. You never know the real reasons why they couldn't be at the Ohio States and Michigans of the world. That doesn't mean they're not great players."

The current face of the franchise, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, played at Miami (Ohio). Former wide receiver Antonio Brown came from Central Michigan.

"When they have people like that come from schools like that making great impacts," Gilbert said, "why not continue to try and find that missing piece or that diamond in the rough that nobody's looking at? I think that's their mindset, knowing they get small-school guys that want to grind and work and make an impact."

Highsmith will play behind Bud Dupree and T.J. Watt with most of his action likely coming on special teams during his rookie season. He has some work to do before he's on the same level as Roethlisberger or Brown. But being drafted by the Steelers gives Highsmith an opportunity to be the next in a long line of small-school college players turned elite pros in Pittsburgh.

"It takes guts," West said of drafting a small-school prospect. "It takes confidence from the top down, to say, ‘I trust you, I trust your evaluations and what you want to be.'

"What I know about the Steelers from watching them from the outside, it's a steel town, blue-collar mentality. I think that's what you want when you want to draft somebody. You want to draft somebody that's going to play Steeler football, blue-collar, steel-town defense. That's why you draft that kid, that person."

This year, that person is Alex Highsmith.