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Alex Highsmith is proof it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish

Imagine being a high school football player and getting no scholarship offers from any of the big schools around the country. Heck, you’re not getting any offers from any schools around the country.

Surely, Charlotte, a start-up Division I school located less than 200 miles from your hometown of Wilmington, North Carolina, will offer you a scholarship, no?

No.

That’s right, not even the Charlotte 49ers, a football program that didn’t exist until 2013, would offer Alex Highsmith a scholarship. Instead, Highsmith had to walk on and he began his college career as a redshirt freshman in 2016.

Highsmith’s college career was mostly unremarkable until his junior year in 2018 when he recorded 60 tackles—including 18.5 tackles for loss—and three sacks. It was in Highsmith’s senior season that he really took off, recording 75 tackles—including 21.5 for loss—and a whopping 15 sacks.

This is what put Highsmith on the radar of NFL scouts, and this is how Highsmith wound up in Pittsburgh as a third-round pick in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Highsmith is entering his fourth season as a Steeler, and he will do so as a very-rich man after signing a four-year, $68 million contract extension on Wednesday. 

To say one could see this coming back in 2020 would be a bit disingenuous, but it’s not necessarily a shock, either. You immediately began to learn of Highsmith’s work ethic and determination the moment Pittsburgh drafted him. His former high school and college coaches spoke highly of Highsmith.

  • “Want to” wasn’t going to be a problem for Highsmith. Dedication seemed to be apparent from the start.

Highsmith is a skilled impressionist, and I can just imagine him conducting his pre-draft interviews in Michael Scott’s voice: “I work too hard. I care too much. And sometimes I can be too invested in my job.”

All joking, aside, one really has to be all of those things if he’s to excel at the NFL level, and there was never really a question that Highsmith would do all that he could in order to reach his maximum potential as an outside linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Highsmith began his rookie season as a backup behind perhaps the best outside linebacker duo in the NFL.

T.J. Watt had long since emerged as one of the best defensive players in the league by 2020, and Bud Dupree, a first-round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, had become quite the Robin opposite Watt.

Highsmith had his moments as a backup throughout his rookie season, even intercepting a pass that helped to spark a comeback victory over the Ravens in Baltimore. But it wasn’t long before Highsmith was thrust into his own Robin role after Dupree suffered a torn ACL with five games to go.

Highsmith started the final five games and Pittsburgh’s lone postseason matchup vs. the Browns at Heinz Field.

Highsmith acquitted himself well enough that he was elevated to full-time starter after Dupree departed as a free agent that offseason.

The Steelers added what they thought was dependable depth when they signed veteran Melvin Ingram to be the primary backup at outside linebacker just prior to the 2021 campaign. However, it didn’t take long before Ingram, a former first-round pick and three-time Pro Bowl player with the Chargers, groused his way out of town due to a lack of playing time.

This is just a guess, but Ingram likely thought he should have been starting ahead of Highsmith; the Steelers didn’t see it that way. Head coach Mike Tomlin said after the team traded Ingram away in the middle of the season that he truly valued bringing young guys into the system and allowing them to understand and grow into their roles.

In other words, he wanted someone who knew what it meant to be a Steeler. Cheesy? Perhaps, but it’s easier to get a youngster to buy into that philosophy than it is an established veteran who perhaps refuses to accept a lesser role.

This is another guess, but Ingram probably looked at Highsmith and said to himself, “I might not be T.J. Watt, but I’m better than this former walk-on.”

For his part, Highsmith kept his head down and improved during his second season, starting 16 games and tallying 74 tackles and six sacks—or 16.5 less than Watt did on his way to being named the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

Much like his college career, Highsmith went from showing mild improvement over his first two years to downright exploding into a star in his third season, as he recorded 14.5 sacks and an incredible five forced fumbles. Many say that Highsmith benefited from Watt’s presence a year ago, something that’s hard to dispute since the former’s stats took a hit when the latter missed seven games with a pectoral injury.

Yes, people often credit Watt for taking the heat off of the outside linebackers opposite him, but nobody ever takes into consideration that maybe Watt’s partner in crime is also making life easier for him.

While Watt has always benefitted from having a really good Robin to his Batman, Highsmith’s partner during Watt’s lengthy absence in 2022—Malik Reed—was a Joker who recorded just one sack.

Finally, perhaps it’s fitting that the Steelers’ first opponent in 2023 is named the 49ers.

It’s a reminder to Alex Highsmith and all of those underdogs out there that it’s not about how you start, but how you finish.

 

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