Alex Highsmith has moments where he looks like the rookie he is, but he also has moments he looks like a future star.
Some players are incredibly easy to root for, and the stories of their lives are nothing short of inspirational. Often the source of that inspiration comes from the retelling of all the obstacles that the player has had to overcome to achieve their success and accomplish their dream of playing in the NFL. Many have had to survive tough circumstances to prosper, relying on a laser like focus to avoid all the distractions and potential pitfalls of their environments.
Then you have a feel good story like Steelers rookie Alex Highsmith. His biggest obstacle was the fact he was a late bloomer. Growing up in Wilmington NC, he was a three sport athlete who was so lightly recruited that he ended up walking on at UNC Charlotte, where he was promptly redshirted. He immediately started working on his physique by hitting the weight room and focusing on his diet and workout regime. He put in the hard work necessary to improve at his craft and was willing and able to help his team by any means possible.
He wasn’t a high school phenom or a physical freak of nature, but he steadily improved on his solid genetics by working harder than the next guy because he wanted it just a bit more. OK, maybe he wanted it a lot more. Regardless, the proof is in the pudding and Highsmith went from unwanted walk-on to third team All American by his senior year. Suddenly he was being viewed as a Day 2 selection in the 2020 NFL Draft.
He was looking forward to the UNC Charlotte pro day and the whole pre-draft process after participating in the NFL Combine, but the pandemic disrupted or altered those activities. Nobody knows just how much the altered pre-draft process affected his eventual draft positioning; it seems reasonable that plenty of teams could have been enamored by the high character young man from a tight knit family with the well earned reputation of a hard worker, but every other team’s loss turned out to be the Steelers gain. Hard work trumps talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Nobody would ever suggest that Highsmith doesn’t have athletic talent, because he has plenty of it. The truth is it took years of faithful training through impressive discipline to build the specimen you see now.
It’s inspiring to see good things happen to good people, to see someone reap the benefits of their dedication and commitment. Highsmith had his NFL dream come true by being drafted by the Steelers in the third round with the 102nd overall selection. Although OTAs and all preseason games were cancelled due to COVID, he impressed the Steelers coaches throughout training camp and confirmed the franchise made a wise decision in selecting him.
Highsmith earned the trust of the coaches and he was the first OLB off the bench, mainly spelling standout Bud Dupree whenever he needed a breather. He steadily received increased snaps as he consistently made a positive impact when on the field. Then everything changed when Dupree was lost for the season with a knee injury. Suddenly the kid gloves were off and the pressure was ramped up bigtime.
Highsmith has been starting for four games now, a quarter of the season. He has been tasked with filling some gigantic shoes, the shoes of a man that should have been named to the Pro Bowl this season in all honesty. At times he has looked like an over anxious rookie trying too hard to impress his teammates and coaches, to live up to the standard is the standard motto put forth by his Head Coach. However, through the four game stretch of impressive football all around on his behalf, he has provided the occasional glimpse at his potential to be an above the line performer in the Steelers defense one day, maybe sooner rather than later.
Earlier in the season I lauded his impressive pass coverage abilities as his greatest attribute, but he has shown an impressive arsenal of pass rush maneuvers and counters since becoming the starter. He has been oh so close on multiple occasions to adding to his sack numbers, which currently sits at one on the season. This is another area where stats can be deceiving, because while he hasn’t been racking up the sacks he has been been applying consistent pressure on the QB. He has had at least one hit on the QB for three straight games mixed in with a handful of pressures.
Against Phillip Rivers and the Colts on Sunday, he had two of the most impactful pass rushes on the day. On Mike Hilton’s huge fourth quarter interception, Highsmith applied quick pressure around the end by displaying excellent bend and balance through the rush. His pressure directly influenced the interception. Later in the fourth; on the Colts last gasp desperation fourth down pass attempt, his beautiful spin move back inside allowed him to almost instantly pressure Rivers into throwing the ball early and inaccurately.
The Colts even tried unsuccessfully to assist their RT on the play by having a RB chip block Highsmith on his way out of the backfield, but Highsmith instinctively executed the spin move perfectly. That level of respect is not usually bestowed on a rookie pass rusher.
Highsmith is still a work in progress, but the ability is more than apparent. He has struggled at times with being overly aggressive and losing containment. You remember who else struggled with that? Both T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree as rookies? I vividly remember T.J. Watt being totally flabbergasted against the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Steelers 2017 playoff loss when the Jaguars used his aggressive nature against him. He was over anxious trying to help his defense overcome some serious holes in the middle due to some crippling injuries. Not a lack of effort or ability, just the occasional momentary loss of discipline and responsibility.
Experience just happens to be the best teacher in these situations. Good thing that Highsmith is renowned for being a hard worker who is a quick learner who seldom makes the same mistakes twice. The Steelers desperately need those qualities from their rookie standout as they pursue another Lombardi Trophy to add to the case.