Updated: May 31, 2020
They say, the evolution of an athlete is unpredictable in nature.
For some, the game comes naturally with little to no effort; for others, it requires time and growth. In both cases, success is not guaranteed as they hold an equal probability for failure. In the case of third round pick Alex Highsmith, his development came a little later in his career with Charlotte 49ers, but once it came, he took his team and the conference by storm.
Highsmith's story beings as a walk-on, who would be redshirted in his true freshman year. The following year, Highsmith played his way to one start, which came in their season-finale. He would finish his redshirt freshman year with 17 total tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss in twelve games. In his sophomore season, Highsmith would find his form mid-season, as he continued to develop. By the end of that season, he would accumulate 33 total tackles, two sacks, and five tackles for loss. Things would get better for Highsmith in his junior year, as he established himself as one of the premier defensive players in Conference-USA. His 18.5 tackles for loss set the 49ers single-season school record. In addition, he finished with 60 total tackles, three sacks, and two forced fumbles. His accomplishments earned him first team All-Conference USA honors.
His senior year would truly be one for the ages, as he placed himself among the best pass rushers in the nation. His record 15 sacks placed him fourth in the nation, and his 21.5 tackles for loss placed him fifth in the nation. He became the first in program history to earn All-American honors, and was a semifinalist for the Burlsworth Trophy. In this year's NFL Combine, he was added to their All-Combine team for his performance during the week of events.
In just four seasons, Highsmith went from a walk-on, to one of the top defensive players in the nation. Yet what makes him intriguing, is the fact that he is still growing into his skillset. With time and development, Highsmith has the potential of becoming an impact player with the Pittsburgh Steelers, as he was with the Charlotte 49ers.
Bending The Edge
In today's NFL, some of the most effective and efficient edge rushers, have the ability to bend the edge and move laterally towards the quarterback. Not all pass rushers are gifted with natural flexibility; the ones who possess such an attribute, are generally the most difficult for opposing tackles to handle. When viewing Highsmith on film, it was apparent that he was gifted with this attribute, which he often used to his advantage.
In this sequence, we see Highsmith lined up as a REO (right defensive end outside) in 5-tech. What is notable about Highsmith, is his how explosive he is coming off the line; opposing offensive linemen had difficulty anchoring him, due to his ability to cover so much ground out of his stance. When the ball is snapped, he explodes off the line and begins turning the corner. Before the the opposing tackle could set his feet, Highsmith had already established a bend (note his ankle flexion). The result was a sack and a very impressive one.
Setting The Edge
Though it is not the most favorable task for an edge rusher, it is definitely an essential one. As one would take pride in rushing the quarterback, keeping containment is important for the purpose of stopping the run. To do this effectively, it takes timing, instincts, and awareness of angles.
In this sequence against the Clemson Tigers, Highsmith is seen positioned in 5-technique, this time as an edge rusher. From the placement of the Clemson fullback, Highsmith was likely aware that this was going to be a running play on his side. As the Clemson slot receiver motions, the ball is snapped, and he receives the ball on the end-around sequence (note Clemson left guard #74, pulling to create an unbalanced effect). The Clemson fullback engages on Highsmith and tries to seal him inside. Highsmith plays this perfectly by stepping outside, forcing the receiver to run inside, resulting in a short gain. This is a textbook example on how to keep containment, and forcing the run inside.
Playing With Leverage
One of Highsmith's noted weaknesses, is his upper and lower body strength. As a developing player, this is an area that he has worked tirelessly to improve. One such a way of doing so is playing with leverage; in other words, putting oneself in a dominant position over an opposing lineman. What is important to note, playing with leverage does not necessarily require size, rather an understanding of positioning and pad level.
In this case, Highsmith is seen positioned in 5-technique, as a tright defensive end on the outside. This is a classic case of a quarterback in shotgun, and an offense in spread formation. The key in this situation, is the one-on-one battle between Highsmith and the Western Kentucky tackle on his side. When the ball is snapped, note how Highsmith lowers his pad level when he engages. What is also important to note, is the outside angle he took coming out of his stance; the combination of the two contributed to the tackle going off-balance. The combination of all these aspects noted, led to Highsmith dominating this one-on-one battle, leading to the eventual sack.
As he demonstrated throughout his college career, Highsmith has the ability to develop quickly and contribute. Though he may not be a starter in his rookie season, fans should be prepared to see used often in different situations. If Highsmith is what many scouts had deemed him to be, a "work in progress", then the Steelers drafted is a player whose ceiling is as high as his floor.