TUSCALOOSA | Dont'a Hightower wanted to be that player last year. He wanted to be that leader.
His knee wouldn't let him.
Hightower, the University of Alabama's junior inside linebacker, trudged through the 2010 season with a bulky brace on his left knee. He willed his way through practices, asking others to do what he couldn't - telling them to finish running out conditioning drills while he watched from the sideline to keep from putting any more wear and tear on the injury that had ended his 2009 season after just four games.
When it was time to take the field, Hightower did extra stretches to loosen up his left leg. Between series, he would get on a bicycle to keep the knee from cooling off and stiffening up.
Now, nearly two years removed from that surgery, Hightower is back to the form he displayed in earning Freshman All-America honors, the form that had him in line for a breakout season two years ago, before the injury.
"I don't have any pain at all," the 6-foot-4, 260-pound player from Lewisburg, Tenn., said. "I've got like 7 percent body fat, that's not really an issue. I'm moving a lot faster than I was."
The turning point was spring practice, the A-Day Game in particular. Hightower made five tackles, including a sack, and had three quarterback hurries.
"After the A-Day Game, if that doesn't tell you I'm back up to 100 percent, then I don't know what to tell you," he said.
It was a stark contrast to the struggles he went through last season, adjusting to playing without his usual speed and burst. He made 69 tackles in 13 starts but couldn't play the game his way.
"I was just glad I was able to be on the field running again, but I could tell I was a little bit slower," he said. "I had to change the way I played a little bit. ... I was using my body to kind of position the running back or receiver to going one way, and then be able to use my quickness and explosiveness to catch up to them - but I wasn't able to do that last year."
During spring drills, Hightower found out all he needed to know about how far back he had come. He discovered that when he ran down UA running back Trent Richardson.
"I've been keeping up with Trent, and I look at the schedule and I don't see anybody that's going to be as bad as Trent," Hightower said. "You know, Trent's one of the best running backs in the country, if not the best, so if I can keep up with him, I feel like I'm going to be all right this year. That's not even part of the question right now."
Alabama coach Nick Saban said Hightower played himself into condition over the course of last season. The coach believes Hightower has come even further in preseason drills.
"He's played extremely well this fall camp and shown really good leadership," Saban said. "That's very, very important to our defensive team."
Now that his body is ready, Hightower believes he can lead by example.
"As far as me stepping up and being that guy on defense, I'm willing to do it," he said.
Reach Tommy Deas at email@example.com or at 205-722-0224.