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July 24, 2011

Hightower finally feels 100 percent

HOOVER | The flash came on New Year's Day, and those that weren't paying much attention likely missed it.

When the University of Alabama's 49-7 thrashing of Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl began, Dont'a Hightower had to watch from the sideline as the Crimson Tide offense consumed nearly half of the first-quarter clock on a game-opening touchdown drive. By the time the game ended, Hightower had long been back on the sideline, having given way to younger players who needed the experience with the score well in hand.

Somewhere in between, for the first time in more than a year since tearing knee ligaments, the fourth-year junior showed the quickness and explosiveness he displayed as an All-Southeastern Conference freshman in 2008. It didn't show up in the statistics so much (Hightower made two tackles and recorded one quarterback hurry).

But the difference to Hightower (6-4, 260 pounds) and his teammates was obvious enough.

"The only time I felt maybe 100 percent was against Michigan State," Hightower said.

Despite ranking second on the team in tackles last year with 69, Hightower concedes he wasn't the same player throughout the season that he had been prior to the injury. He didn't record his first tackle for loss until the eighth game of the season, and struggled at times to make stops in the open field.

"Even though, physically I passed all the knee exams, (and) my knee was stronger than the non-surgical knee. But I guess it was just mentally, the back of my mind was just telling me, try and baby it here and there. But, right now I don't see any signs of that," Hightower said.

By mid-season, he was a full year removed from the season-ending knee injury he suffered in a home win over Arkansas in 2009. But it was near the end of the season before he began feeling more like his former self.

"In the A-Day game, I think I went out and set the tone, let people know that last year was a slump, no ifs, ands or buts about it," Hightower said. "They say after major knee surgery, the second year is when you pick it up. I'm still going to rehab and therapy for it, but I'll be ready to go when the season starts."

Respect for Hightower's game, regardless of his injury, has been everywhere on preseason All-Southeastern Conference teams. Friday, he was chosen for the first-team on the media All-SEC team at the Media Days event in Hoover, and days earlier, he was picked first-team by SEC coaches. He was a first-team All-America pick by Lindy's Magazine, a second-team All-America pick by renowned prognosticator Phil Steele, and is on the preseason watch list for virtually every significant national honor for defensive players - the Butkus, Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik Awards.

"Dont'a has had a fantastic offseason. I don't think he has completely gotten over his injury (but) he's got his explosive quickness back, his burst in pass rush," said UA coach Nick Saban. "(He's) playing with a little bit more speed, which is more like he played before his injury. So he has had a really, really good off-season, really good spring practice, and a great summer. He has demonstrated some leadership qualities that will certainly be important to our team."

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Reach Chase Goodbread at chase.goodbread@tuscaloosanews.com or at 205-722-0196.


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