It is not uncommon in college football when a player wants to perform well against his home-state school, but Alabama redshirt junior linebacker Dont'a Hightower recently took that to the extreme.
During the Crimson Tide's 37-6 smothering of Tennessee last Saturday, Hightower amassed seven tackles, three quarterback hurries, two pass deflections, a sack and a 29-yard interception return. The 6-foot-4, 260-pounder from Lewisburg, Tenn., headlined a defense that held the Volunteers to no first downs and 41 yards after intermission.
"I was playing my home state, and it's a big rivalry game," Hightower said. "Last year, they broke a hundred yards rushing against us, so we kind of fed off that."
The Southeastern Conference recognized Hightower on Monday as its defensive player of the week.
As the No. 2 Crimson Tide turn their attention to next Saturday's mammoth clash against No. 1 LSU, there is no doubt Hightower has left behind his struggles of a year ago, when he was trying to rebound from a torn ACL suffered in a 2009 victory over Arkansas. Hightower started all 13 games last season on a good defense and had a respectable 69 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss, but he and his teammates say he is vastly improved this season.
Hightower leads this year's defense, which is nothing short of stifling, with 48 tackles and six tackles for loss, and he is among 12 semifinalists for the Butkus Award.
"He's a guy who has been making plays the whole year," said fellow senior linebacker Courtney Upshaw, who also is a Butkus semifinalist. "He's the leader of our defense, and we feed off him. I know he was excited to play Tennessee, and to see him dominate the way he did was great.
"Last year, he wasn't 100 percent, but he did what he could."
Hightower joined offensive lineman Barrett Jones and linebacker Chris Jordan as elite Volunteer State prospects in the 2008 class who bolted for Tuscaloosa. Tennessee's most touted in-state signee that year, the late Aaron Douglas, later transferred to Alabama.
Hightower was an instant success with the Tide, starting in the '08 opener against Clemson and recovering a fumble in his first series. He notched double-digit tackles in his second career game and by midseason was making memorable plays, such as his scoop and run with an A.J. Green fumble that set up a touchdown in the surprise rout of Georgia.
After earning Freshman All-America honors, Hightower was poised for a monstrous 2009 and had a stellar debut against Virginia Tech, but the injury against the Razorbacks halted that season and affected last season.
"I was kind of forced to step up and be the leader of the defense last year, and the knee injury really frustrated me a lot," Hightower said. "I was not comfortable with the leadership role, and I was not used to it, trying to replace Rolando McClain and Javier Arenas and Terrence Cody and guys like that.
"I was ready for this year and comfortable with stepping up and being the team leader. I feel like we're all going in the right direction right now."
The Crimson Tide defense, under the tutelage of coach Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart, will enter next week's showdown No. 1 nationally in several prominent categories. Alabama is allowing just 44.9 rushing yards a game, 180.5 total yards a game and 6.9 points per game.
Alabama is yielding only 9.9 first downs per game, and Crimson Tide opponents have made nine trips all season into their red zone.
Tennessee never ventured into Alabama's red zone last week and did not produce a first down in 10 of 12 offensive possessions. Hightower couldn't quite match Tennessee's second-half output with his 29-yard interception return, but his impressive run certainly showed he is not the same player from a year ago.
"That was exactly what Coach Smart started saying after the first couple of games of the season," Hightower said. "He said I was moving like I was two years ago before the injury."