TUSCALOOSA _ It was the kind of thing that most onlookers wouldn't immediately notice, especially considering the University of Alabama football team had ditched their pads for Sunday's practice.
But it wasn't what sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower was wearing that was so telling, rather what he wasn't: Absent was the protective brace on his knee.
Considering the major surgery he had roughly 15 months ago to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus, and began this season wearing braces on both knees, it was a strong indication of how far both he and his confidence have come.
"It was very frustrating in the beginning of the year," Hightower said. "I thought I was 100 percent, but I went back and watched film and I talked with Coach (Kirby) Smart and Coach (Nick) Saban and they told me the last couple games I actually looked like I was the old me before I got hurt.
"I'm playing a lot faster, I'm reading things better. I'm being more of a vocal player as far as being a leader and a teammate. I really feel better now."
It's been a while in the making, especially considering everything Hightower has been juggling. In addition to the knee, he was essentially the lone returning starter among the front seven with only one returning defensive back as well, and many looked to him to not only take over the leadership and make all the calls but also replace the NFL's No. 8-overall pick in last year's draft _ who had been starting for three years and won the Butkus Award.
That's a lot for anyone to deal with.
"You can just see how he's matured and played through adversity and what he had to go through," junior defensive end Marcell Dareus said.
On the field, fans noticed whenever he trailed behind a receiver, his footwork wasn't crisp and opponents kept completing passes to players out of backfield like Arkansas' 43-yard opening touchdown.
However, with the emergence of freshman C.J. Mosley in the middle, Hightower spent more time at weakside linebacker, where he appears to be more comfortable, and ditched the brace on his good knee. He was around the ball more down the stretch, had a season-high 10 tackles against LSU and eight against Mississippi State, and although he didn't have a sack or forced fumble, finished the regular season second in team tackles with 67.
"I just really didn't feel as fast, or mobile or as quick the first couple of games, but I feel like the last four or five games you can see that I'm running with receivers," he said. "I'm not two or three steps behind guys that I shouldn't be. You can tell that I'm playing a lot better."
Against Auburn, the Tigers threw in his direction just once for an incompletion. Overall, they completed just two passes to someone out of the backfield for short gains and the two screen attempts resulted in a drop and a 9-yard gain (senior Chavis Williams was in coverage on a 15-yard gain and a ball thrown Mosley's way was incomplete).
"I feel like the Florida game is whenever everything kind of turned around," Hightower said. "I knew we were going up against a lot of speed. I was able to run around in practice, and I felt pretty good and I played pretty good. Ever since then, I feel like I've been playing a lot faster."
So much so that fans have been speculating that Hightower might attempt to make the jump to the NFL a year early despite not being touted as a high pick this year. He deflected the question by saying that he's "focused on the Capital One Bowl," but two statements last week hinted at his return:
"He's really made a lot of progress throughout the course of the year," Saban said. "I think his confidence, his mobility, all those things probably improved as the season went on.
"I think that he'll be even better next year because I think he's gotten more and more confident and in better condition. I think he understands his role on the team much, much better now so I think his future is very bright."
The other was by Hightower himself when talking about the Auburn loss.
"It's going to be in the back of my mind until next year," he said.
Regardless, there have been two important developments since Hightower last played at Bryant-Denny Stadium nearly a month ago. During his last strength test the repaired knee was stronger than his healthy one, and he was also named a team co-captain, which Hightower simply called "a big honor."
"The whole season he just tried to keep everyone calm because we had a lot of young players, try and keep them calm and keep them focused all the way through the season," sophomore linebacker Nico Johnson said. "Sometimes we came up a little short with the losses and all that, he did a real good job of leading the group.
"He was doing things that a leader would do, getting on people, keeping people in the film room. Not just football, grades and everything. He's a good man."