HOOVER, Ala. -- Dont’a Hightower traversed the Wynfrey Hotel lobby last week a SEC Media Days veteran.
Not a hitch in his step, not a limp in sight.
He promises the knee troubles of yesterday are gone for good in his second Hoover appearance preceding his fourth year at Alabama. And since the burden of experience and expectations shift back to the defense this fall, the stability of Hightower’s experience and knee ligaments will factor largely into success or failure.
Just like every interview he’d faced since the fall of 2009, linebacker’s reconstructed joint was the hot topic of conversation.
“I feel like I’m back at 100 percent,” he said. “I felt like after the A-Day Game, it shows people where I stand. I feel like my pass rush is back. I’m moving better laterally sideline to sideline. I feel like my old self.”
Hightower’s message was nearly identical last July when making his Media Days debut. Less than a year after he tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus against Arkansas, the linebacker said he was back at full speed.
Though his 69 tackles in 2010 ranked second on the team, Hightower wasn’t always playing the same pre-injury level. He was, after all, a freshman All-American in 2008 when he piled up 64 tackles and high hopes for a dominant career.
The cut block in Bryant-Denny Stadium in September of 2009 interrupted his rise.
Major surgery, a massive brace and a front-row seat for a national championship run kept Hightower from complacency.
It took a full season after the 2009 medical redshirt before he felt like he did before the injury.
“The only time I felt maybe 100 percent was against Michigan State (Capital One Bowl),” he said. “In the A-Day Game, I think I went out and set the tone, let people know that last year was a slump. No ifs ands or buts about it. They say after major knee surgery, the second year is when you pick it up.
“I’m still going to rehab and therapy for it, but I’ll be ready to go when the season starts.”
Hightower contributed to a defensive effort that held the Spartans to negative-48 rushing yards in the bowl win. He also recorded one of his nine quarterback hurries of the season, though he didn’t record a sack. April’s spring game ended with five tackles and a one sack.
Tide coach Nick Saban said the best Hightower’s capable of is still to come.
“I don’t think he has completely gotten over his injury,” Saban said. “He got his explosive quickness back, his burst in pass-rush, playing with a little bit more speed, which is more like he played before his injury.”
That was a factor in Hightower’s decision to return for his junior season instead of entering the NFL draft.
Addressing reporters after eventual first-round picks Mark Ingram, Julio Jones and Marcell Dareus declared for the draft, Hightower made his intentions clear.
“I know I can play a lot better than what I was playing. It wasn’t that hard to see,” he said in January. “Anybody could see that.
“Plus the fact that I could come back, graduate in the fall and have my degree was something that coach Saban always preached about and it’s something that my family, my mom especially, really believes in.”