HERE CAME DONT'A HIGHTOWER, LUMBERING OFF THE practice field in Tuscaloosa. It was a sticky afternoon in August, tar-bubbling hot, and Hightower had rivulets of sweat pouring from his 6' 4", 260-pound frame. The first game of the season was still several days away, but based on what Hightower had seen during these grinding, grueling days of summer camp, the co-captain and play-caller of the defense was already uttering weighty words about the 'Bama D.
"We have the potential to be a dominating defense, one of the best in college football history, and I'm going to do everything I can to make that happen," Hightower said. "Everything we do is geared toward winning a national championship. We won't be satisfied with anything short of that. I will leave everything I have out on that field."
August is a time of big dreams and bold statements in college football, but the Alabama defense lived up to Hightower's preseason vision. A redshirt junior, he led the Crimson Tide D that shut down its opponents with brutal efficiency. Nine starters returned from the unit that was fifth nationally in total defense in 2010, and Alabama came into this year's BCS title game leading the country in all five major categories: scoring defense (8.83 ppg), total defense (191.25 ypg), rushing defense (74.92 ypg), passing efficiency defense (83.93 rating) and passing defense (116.33 ypg). It held nine opponents to 11 points or fewer and did not allow any offense to score more than two touchdowns in a game.
"It's like you're playing a defense from the NFC South when you go against Alabama," said an offensive coordinator for a team that faced the Crimson Tide this season, who has NFL experience. "After studying them and seeing them up close, I can honestly say they have no weak spots. Their linemen are monsters. Their linebackers look like linemen. Their safeties look like linebackers. Their corners are big. And all of them are NFL fast. On top of that, they are the most disciplined, gap-sound team I've ever faced, which means they're never out of position."
The domination was surely a team effort, powered by several stars, but it was the versatile Hightower who made the D excel in every situation. In Alabama's base 3--4 defense he lined up at inside linebacker and called the defensive signals. In the nickel package he moved to the outside and rushed the passer from the Jack linebacker-end hybrid position; at other times in the nickel he dropped into coverage and played like an extra safety. Heading into the title game, he led the Tide with 81 tackles, 15 more than any other player.
"Dont'a is the kind of special talent that you never want to take off the field," coach Nick Saban says. "He's our leader out there. Everyone respects him for all that he's overcome."
HIGHTOWER'S CAREER AT ALABAMA NEARLY ENDED TWO years ago. During the Tide's fourth game of the 2009 season, Arkansas guard Mitch Petris legally cut-blocked him on a running play, driving his helmet into Hightower's left knee. It was a gruesome-looking injury; Hightower tore his anterior cruciate ligament and missed the rest of the year. He returned in '10 but often looked slow and tentative. Then days before Alabama's Capital One Bowl game against Michigan State, Hightower took off the knee brace he'd been wearing all season.
Suddenly, the old Hightower—who had been a freshman All-America in 2008, when he had 64 tackles—was back. Flashing his familiar quickness, he helped the Tide hold the Spartans' running backs to 28 yards on 17 carries in Alabama's 49--7 win. Hightower finished the '10 season second on the team with 69 tackles and was named second-team all-SEC by the coaches. He was named a finalist for the Butkus and Lombardi awards this season after making at least five tackles in 11 of the first 12 games.
"Hightower is a prototypical linebacker—big and strong and fast—and he's going to be an excellent pro," says one SEC defensive assistant with NFL experience, adding that he expects Hightower to be selected in the first or second round of April's NFL draft should he decide to forgo his senior year at Alabama. "He's definitely rebounded from his injury and played like the best middle linebacker in the country. We couldn't block him."