TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – Dont'a Hightower didn't expect to be Rolando McClain on the field.
But the linebacker for 15th-ranked Alabama had no idea it would be so hard to get back to being Dont'a Hightower again after a serious knee injury that ended his 2010 season early.
Hightower opened the season replacing the Butkus Award-winning McClain as the Crimson Tide's middle linebacker, but said it took awhile before he was moving around and chasing down ballcarriers and quarterbacks like he had the previous two seasons.
"It was very frustrating in the beginning of the year," he said. "I thought I was 100 percent."
Then, coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart pointed out that his footwork was a little sluggish, and he was a little slower getting to the ball.
A recent review of film by Saban and Smart tells a different story, even if Hightower didn't have the kind of breakout season he and Alabama coaches were hoping for.
"They told me the last couple games I actually looked like I the old me before I got hurt," Hightower said. "I'm playing a lot faster, I'm reading things better and I'm being more of a vocal player as far as being a leader and teammate. I really feel better now."
Hightower is hoping that turnaround will continue on Jan. 1 when the Tide (9-3) takes on No. 7 Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl. He is still Alabama's second-leading tackler with 67 stops and eight quarterback hurries, moving from the middle back to weakside linebacker in midseason.
"He's really made a lot of progress throughout the course of the year," Saban said. "His confidence, his mobility, all those things probably improved as the season went on. He was one of our most productive players.
"His role on our team also changed from just being a guy who's being a linebacker to being a guy who was making all the calls. That was probably a little bit of an adjustment for him."
Hightower tore the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his left knee on a cut block against Arkansas four games into last season. He received a redshirt year and managed to return and go through full contact in spring practice.
Hightower, who said recent tests showed his rehabilitated knee is now stronger than the other one, can pinpoint when he started feeling like himself again.
"I feel like the Florida game is when everything kind of turned around," he 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."
He apparently was able to fill McClain's shoes in the leadership role if not at middle linebacker. Hightower, a starter since his freshman year, was named a permanent team captain after the season — like McClain last year. McClain was the eighth overall pick in the NFL draft by the Raiders but he was also the playcaller and unquestioned defensive leader on the field.
"I feel like it was going to be hard either way," Hightower said. "Even if I wasn't hurt, coming in and replacing a great player like Rolando? You see him now, in the NFL, he's doing a really good job being able to come in as a rookie and taking hold of all that."
A third-year sophomore, Hightower has deflected questions about whether he'll explore entering the NFL draft. Saban is already looking ahead to 2011 for the 6-foot-4, 258-pounder, though.
"I think that he'll be even better next year because I think he's gotten more and more confident and better condition," the coach said. "I think he understands his role on the team much, much better now. I think his future's very bright."
Hightower also lines up at the line with his hands on the ground at times, and does well enough that lineman Marcell Dareus calls him "a nice little defensive end at heart."
Hightower was one of the few veterans of a defense with nine new starters and freshmen like linebacker C.J. Mosley and cornerback DeMarcus Milliner holding down starting roles. Dareus noticed Hightower's improvement as the season went along.
"You look back and see how he matured and what he played through, how he had to go through adversity — his performance changed dramatically," Dareus said.