Alabama's Hightower handling challenges as defensive leader after knee injury

Dont'a Hightower has a long to-do list for Alabama's fall camp: Change positions, replace a Butkus Award winner, return from a serious knee injury and take charge of the national champions' defense.

That's enough to stress anyone out.

Instead, Crimson Tide linebacker seems to be settling nicely into Rolando McClain's spot in the middle as the primary playcaller on a defense that has undergone quite a transformation.

"It's kind of a tough thing trying to replace Rolando, because he was such a great player and he knew the defense so perfectly," he said. "It's been a tough journey, but I feel so comfortable in it now, I feel like I've played mike since I've been here. I'm so comfortable making all the checks and making all the calls and audibles."

Hightower is handling it well enough that he has consistently drawn the praise of Tide coach Nick Saban.

He is one of the team's most experienced defenders even though he's only played one full year. Hightower sustained torn ACL and MCL ligaments in his left knee four games into last season on a cut block against Arkansas, when he was starting at weakside linebacker and part of one of the nation's top linebacking duos.

Hightower was granted a medical redshirt and is a third-year sophomore. Now he's moved over to his former neighbor's position on the field.

An immediate starter as a freshman, he's a seasoned veteran compared to most of the players on a defense that is replacing nine starters, including linebackers McClain, Cory Reamer and Eryk Anders.

The 6-foot-4, 260-pound Hightower has McClain's size and ability to both take on blockers and chase down ballcarriers.

"It's tough to get away from him running the ball and tough to block him," Tide tailback Mark Ingram said. "He's real athletic. So he gives problems for everybody on the other side of the ball."

But McClain, who was the eighth overall draft pick by the NFL's Oakland Raiders after skipping his senior season, also was the professor among the linebackers who studied film relentlessly, mentored the younger players and was the clear leader on the field.

Now, it's Hightower's turn.

"Dont'a's really done well considering the circumstances," Saban said. "He is in a new role as signal caller. It's a greater responsibility. There's a little more responsibility for leadership. He's really done a good job of that.

"It's always difficult when you come back from an injury, getting back into the kind of shape that you're used to being in. He's really done a good job of sustaining and continually improving that. He's got his weight down to where he's got his speed and explosiveness back."

Hightower won't say how much weight he's lost since the offseason but said he cut out fried foods and ate more fruits and veggies. Cauliflower, he says, is his favorite. Seriously.

He said midway through preseason camp, "I was moving a lot faster than I was moving before I got hurt."

Does he feel like the same player he was before the injury?

"I feel like I've surpassed that," Hightower said. "I feel like I'm a totally different player. I feel like I play a lot faster, I recognize things a lot quicker. Having that year off kind of helped me get in the film room and learn the defense and learn the ins and outs and why exactly do we do this instead of doing this."

Tide tailback Mark Ingram said Hightower "definitely" has returned from his injury a better player.

"He's a lot smarter," Ingram said. "He's studying a lot of film. He knows that defense well. He learned a lot from Ro and I think he's trying to step into that role. He's doing a great job with the defense, leading and telling everybody what to do. He's playing faster, he's playing smarter and he knows a lot of what's going on, as far as the entire defense and what the offense is trying to do when they give you certain looks.

"He's a lot smarter and he's playing a lot faster."