Champions of The Round Table

 
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HOOVER, Ala. — Big fish, small pond. That was Dont'a Hightower a few years ago, the pride of Marshall County football in rural southern Middle Tennessee. His warm smile hardly matched his beastly body in high school. You could identify him on Friday nights from the parking lot, a man among boys on the field.

The pond has grown since then.

So has the fish.

Hightower, now a third-year sophomore linebacker at
Alabama, made the rounds as one of three Crimson Tide players at SEC Media Days on Wednesday at the Wynfrey Hotel.

Donning a bright red suit, the 6-foot-4, 258-pound Lewisburg native addressed dozens of questions about his projection as the next defensive superstar on a team vying to repeat as national champion.

"It's a bonanza. It's crazy. It's hectic," Hightower said. "All the reporters, the cameras, the lights … I didn't expect it to be like this. But I like it. I like a little attention."

College football stages don't get any bigger or more visible than Tuscaloosa, where the 2009 BCS Championship trophy resides and fans adjust their lives — and mental health — around fall Saturdays.

Hightower's visibility is set to take off as well. Many expect it to reach a national scale this year if he proves recovered from an ACL tear that ended his 2009 season in the fourth game and forced a medical redshirt.

"The knee is back," Hightower said. "It's perfectly fine. I actually think I'm back to 100 percent. The only problem I had in the spring was the mental aspect of it, but I'm over the hump on that."

Hightower is one of 11 true freshmen since 1972 to start an Alabama season opener. He made 12 starts that year, played in all 14 games and piled up 64 tackles (26 solo) en route to first-team freshman All-America honors.

He had 16 tackles and a sack last year before he took a helmet to his left knee on a cut block against Arkansas. Now he is set to become the face of Alabama's defense with the departure of Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain, named the nation's top linebacker last season."Those are really big shoes to fill," Hightower said. "Not only was he the big-play guy, but he was also the leader of our defense and our team.

"Rolando was finesse about things. He got to the ball quicker than I do. I play aggressive. I like to hit the lineman first before I go get the ball. Rolando also played with his mind. He was a lot smarter than me. That's how he made a lot of big plays. Sometimes, I just kind of use brute force as a pass rusher.

"Not playing for five or six months eats away at you, so I'm looking for this year to be my big year. I want to be up for the Butkus. I want to win the Butkus. We have goals for our team, and those are my goals for myself."

Hightower is an imposing figure that even Heisman Trophy winning running Back Mark Ingram would like to avoid.

"Dont'a is a beast," Ingram said. "He's a man out there. He can run sideline to sideline. He can cover the pass. I'm glad he's on my team and I'm not going against him all the time."

Alabama Coach Nick Saban said comparing Hightower to McClain would be a mistake.

"(McClain) was the signal caller, the leader out there," Saban said. "Dont'a is a little bit more of a pass rusher, could play defensive end, could be a designated pass rusher, can move around, play multiple roles and positions. That's how we were using him last year prior to his injury.

"I'm hopeful that Dont'a will not just have to be the signal caller all the time so that he can play some of those other roles as well."

Hightower is unable to make it back to Lewisburg very often, where his mother L'Tanya, sister Quenette and a handful of cousins, aunts and uncles watch his every move when the Crimson Tide is on TV.

But he knows what he still means to Marshall County.

"I'm not only doing this for me," he said. "I'm doing this for my family, my friends and my community. I feel like back home is one of the places people are looking up at me, looking for a role model."


8/8/2010

Art is much less important than life, but what a poor life without it !

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    By: Jeff Lockridge

    From:THE TENNESSEAN

    Reach Jeff Lockridge at 615-259-8023 or jlockridge@tennessean.com