Contributed Photo Alabama's Dont'a Hightower (30) in action against Arkansas State.
Along the way to Alabama’s national championship last season, tailback Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy, middle linebacker Rolando McClain captured the Butkus Award and weakside linebacker Dont’a Hightower was robbed of numerous victory celebrations.
Hightower was a major component in the Crimson Tide’s salty defense until the Arkansas game in late September, when a helmet to his left knee on a cut block ended his season.
“It hurt going 14-0 and me only being able to play in three of the games,” Hightower said. “There is always a part in the back of my mind that I could have been a part of something special. I was like a coach on the sideline helping guys out with stuff I was seeing, but it was painful. I guess everything happens for a reason.”
Fortunately for the 6-foot-4, 258-pounder from Lewisburg, Tenn., there has been a stream of positive news ever since.
He still received all the championship hardware. He was granted a medical redshirt by the NCAA and enters this season as a redshirt sophomore. And he recovered quickly enough from his torn anterior cruciate ligament to go through spring practice.
Hightower has moved inside to replace McClain, who went to the Oakland Raiders in April as the eighth overall pick of the NFL draft, but he may not be employed in an identical role.
“Dont’a is a little bit more of a pass rusher,” coach Nick Saban said. “He could play defensive end. He can play multiple roles and positions. That’s how we were using him last year prior to his injury. We would like to use him that way again this year if that’s possible. Rolando McClain was the signal caller and stayed in that position all the time.
“I’m hopeful that Dont’a can play some of those other roles as well, because they are tremendous assets for him and would be assets for our defense.”
Hightower and junior safety Mark Barron are Alabama’s only defensive starters back from last season, when the Tide finished second nationally in total defense, scoring defense, rush defense and pass-efficiency defense. The coordinator of the unit, Kirby Smart, is back for his third year in the job after turning down the same position at Georgia, his alma mater, in January.
Tide quarterback Greg McElroy believes the difference between the defense this year and last year has nothing to do with talent.
“I think it’s more of a comfort level,” McElroy said. “I think that’s going to be the biggest challenge for our guys. The talent is unbelievable, and the good thing is we have leaders at all three positions. We have leaders on the line with Marcell Dareus and Josh Chapman.
* Camp start: Aug. 5.
* Opener: Sept. 4 against San Jose State at Bryant-Denny Stadium (7 p.m. EDT, pay-per-view)
* Fun fact: The Crimson Tide have not allowed a 100-yard rusher since BenJarvus Green-Ellis of Ole Miss amassed 131 on Oct. 13, 2007, a stretch of 34 games.
“We have a leader at linebacker in Dont’a, and we have a leader in the secondary in Mark Barron, and I think that is going to ease the transition.”
Hightower became one of 11 true freshmen to start a season opener for Alabama since 1972 when he took the field in the Tide’s 34-10 thumping of Clemson that ignited the 12-0 regular season of 2008. He tallied 10 tackles in his second game against Tulane and wound up with 64 stops in earning Freshman All-America honors.
Before his injury last season, Hightower had 16 tackles, four for lost yardage.
“Guys have been saying we’re not going to be as good on defense but we have a great offense,” Hightower said. “That motivates me. I think, for the most part, we’ve got young guys who are a lot faster and have more athleticism this year, but we don’t have as much size. I think we’ll do great.
“I actually think we can be just as good as we were last year.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...