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August 4, 2010

Hightower a key staple in Tide's revamped defense

The leading tackler/defensive captain, gone.

The massive nose guard who anchored the line, history.

With them the players who led the University of Alabama in passes broken up and hurries last season, as well as the multi-faceted All-American.

Yet heading into fall camp, which opens Thursday morning on the Capstone, Dont'a Hightower is feeling pretty good about the Crimson Tide's defense even though the only other sure-fire returning starter is safety Mark Barron.

"This year's defense has a lot more hunger than the previous year, and the reason why I say that is I can speak for myself, that I have a lot to prove," Hightower said. "I don't want to be someone who people say, 'He came back from a knee injury and was never the same again.'"

Actually, just about everyone on the unit has something to prove, individually and together, never mind that whole reigning national championship thing. While it's unfair to use last year's accomplishments as a measuring stuck, they'll still attempt to avoid any kind of a letdown from the unit that ranked second nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense, pass-efficiency defense and 10th in pass defense.

That Hightower is even on the field at all is evidence enough that no one should question his hunger. After sustaining a torn anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus, known in orthopedic circles as the "unhappy triad" of knee injuries, against Arkansas on September 26th few thought he would be ready for a full return by now, much less during the spring when the only signs of a setback were the brace and his overcompensating with his healthy leg - which isn't unusual.

"Dont'a is a beast, he's a man out there," junior running back Mark Ingram said. "He's big, strong, fast. He can run from sideline to sideline. He can pass-rush. He can cover. He's a complete package as far as a linebacker goes. He's smart. He's a great leader. You can't ask for much more from a teammate. I'm glad he's on my team and I'm not going against him all the time."

Hightower was credited with 64 tackles with a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries his impressive freshman year and had 16 in 2009 before the injury. He was allowed to count the season as a medical redshirt so Hightower's still considered a sophomore, but he didn't stray from the team at all, even when hobbling on crutches.

"It's made me more humble," he said. "Sitting on the sideline, I learned things I never would have learned. Being around the graduate assistants, Coach (Kirby) Smart, I learned the backbone of our defense, why we run what we run. I think that might have been the weakest part of my game before, and I think that knowledge helps me be faster now."

Consequently, there's little doubt where the heart of the defense resides heading into camp.

"I expect to be a leader," Hightower said. "I expect to be the guy who if things aren't going right, before Coach (Nick) Saban has to say something, that I'll be the guy to say, 'Let's get this right.'"

That used to be the role of middle linebacker Rolando McClain, the Butkus Award winner who was the eighth-overall selection by the Oakland Raiders in the NFL Draft and recently signed a five-year, $40 million contract. However, despite both being tremendous talents at linebacker that's pretty much where the comparisons end.

"The thing he does a little bit different than Ro, is Ro 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. We would like to be able to use him that way again this year if that's possible.

"Rolando McClain played the same position all the time."

It'll take some time for the new unit's identity to be finally forged, perhaps even after the day-to-day challenges start to take their toll and are intensified by both the heat and occasional two-a-day sessions. Fans will see the same defensive philosophy, but with different execution molded around the players and tweaked by how things come together.

Regardless, Hightower is a key starting point and with the other linebackers settling into their roles the front seven has the potential to be even more potent and aggressive than those he played with before.

"I feel like I play the same," he said. "I still want to be physical, I'm going to be physical. That's one of the things that makes me me. I'm not a guy you just have to get around, but I can put the guard back in the hole and go and make the play. I feel like I'm the same player."


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