Early last fall, Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower appear to be slobbernocking his way into national prominence. According to scout-turned twitter god-turned scout Daniel Jeremiah, people around the NFL were buzzing more about the true sophomore than the guy playing next to him, 2010 top ten pick Rolando McClain.
It’s easy to see why: when the two linebackers played side by side, Hightower clearly was the more aggressive LB. Whether it was going in for the tackle after losing his helmet in the Virginia Tech game or using his nice closing burst to deliver some semi-late wallops to FIU’s QB, Hightower looked like the kind of linebacker who could intimidate opponents and take over games.
And because Hightower had success both as a run stuffer and a pass rusher, he appeared to be one of the rare linebackers who could excel both inside and outside in a 3-4 defense.
Unfortunately, a leg injury suffered in late September prematurely ended Hightower’s season. But when he appeared to show no ill-effects in Alabama’s spring game, the excitement surrounding Hightower resurfaced, with many draft analysts predicting that the Bama backer would build upon his early ‘09 success and become a 2011 1st round pick.
As an easily excitable draft geek, I too participated in the Hightower hype. However, the more skeptical side of me was uncomfortable projecting big things based on a little more than three games of tape. I went back to the ‘08 tape to see if the same super-impresive linebacker showed up. Unfortunately, I encountered a linebacker with some significant flaws.
In the ‘08 tape, Hightower more often played inside in a conventional 3-4 front. And for the most part, he thrived in that role. He did a very nice job of taking on lead blockers, often winning battles against LSU fullback Quinn Johnson. In the Ole Miss game, Hightower blew up big o-lineman John Jerry and made a crucial stop on 4th and 1, showing how explosive and powerful he can be when playing downhill.
However, Hightower also displayed some limitations playing in space. He had some trouble breaking down and making tackles in the open field, and his lack of exceptional foot speed made it difficult for him to chase down plays. Kentucky receiver Dicky Lyons Jr. was able to run a slot bubble screen to the house because Hightower couldn’t get there in time to make the tackle.
While Hightower’s instincts were fairly good, he’d occasionally look lost in coverage or read run on a passing play. When he took a false step forward near the end of the first half of the LSU game, tight end Richard Dickson was able to get wide open down the seam for a first down.
Those plays can drive a coach crazy, which could explain why Hightower often came off the field on passing downs. In ‘09, Hightower spent a lot of time down at defensive end when the team knew the ball was going in the air, so it’s not at all clear that he can be an effective coverage backer.
Hightower also had some struggles against the run. He had a poor habit of playing too tall and flat-footed, which minimized his normally excellent ability to dispatch blockers and explode into tackles. Even in the ‘09 season opener against Virginia Tech, Hightower gave up a first down on a drag-down tackle because he stopped his feet and went into the tackle with little momentum. The same issue popped up multiple times in the ‘08 tape.
In addition, Hightower had trouble protecting his legs and avoiding cut blocks. On one play, LSU RB Charles Scott raced by him for a touchdown because he couldn’t get his legs free in time to bring down the big back. Based on the ’08 tape, one would conclude that the big linebacker only possesses average agility.
Because of the disparity between his ’08 & ’09 tape, Hightower’s stock could head in either direction. He could build upon his ‘09 success and become a top-flight linebacker prospect, as well as a major target for 3-4 teams.
However, there’s also the possibility that Hightower will exhibit some of the same issues that plagued him in ‘08. If that happens, he could be labeled a pure thumper: a guy who’s great playing downhill but has some range & coverage limitations. Think a somewhat faster, more athletic Brandon Spikes.
As a result, Hightower is a prospect who needs to be watched closely this fall. Hopefully, he’ll build upon his shortened ‘09 season, but the ‘08 tape says that’s not at all guaranteed.