Alabama LB Hightower feels better than ever

CLIFF BRUNT AP Sports Writer Published:

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) -- Alabama's Dont'a Hightower says the NFL combine offers him an ideal opportunity to prove he's fully healed.

Hightower was one of the nation's top young linebackers before he tore the anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his left knee four games into the 2009 season. He declared himself fully healed and then some Saturday.

"I feel a lot more fluent as far as my movements go," he said. "I feel as fast as I've ever felt, even before my knee injury. I'm definitely moving in the right direction."

If that's true, some lucky team could get a steal in April's draft. Hightower's combination of size and speed has him projected by many as a late first-round pick, but the 260-pound inside linebacker might be better than that.

Hightower never doubted that he would eventually return to full strength despite the slow recovery.

"I knew I was going to be out for a time, so I wanted to minimize that time to as short as possible and maximize it in the rehab room and doing all the right things," he said. "I definitely feel like I'm about to where I need to be."

After missing most of 2009, he returned in 2010 and had 69 tackles. As a junior last season, he anchored the nation's best defense, was a finalist for numerous national awards and helped the Crimson Tide win the national championship.

Hightower said overcoming the injury made him a stronger person.

"I knew what it was going to take," he said. "I set my mind to it and prayed to God every night, and that really helped me out."

Fellow Alabama linebacker Courtney Upshaw believes Hightower could be a special NFL player.

"He's a big guy who can move," Upshaw said. "I've been training with him ever since we got done (with the college season) and to see that guy move the way he moves -- whoever gets him is going to be proud to get him. He makes plays. He was the leader of our defense. I'm sure he can go in and lead a team in the NFL."

Throughout the 2011 season, Alabama coaches helped Hightower, Upshaw and Mark Barron keep track of who made the most plays. Included in the tally: sacks, interceptions, big hits, fumbles forced and recovered, tackles for loss. Players also lost points for negative plays.

Hightower won.

"Don't let Mark Barron tell you no different," Hightower said. "He's going to tell you he won last year, but last year don't count, it's this year that counts."

Upshaw finished third.

"There was games where you don't have as much production as the next player, and you're like, 'Oh man, my coach cheating me or something,'" Upshaw joked. "But he (Hightower) won it fair and square. I'm proud to say I was in the top three with those two guys.

Upshaw said Hightower let his teammates know he won the friendly competition.

"It was fun to go out there and compete, because in the long run, we all made plays," Upshaw said. "It made it more fun to go out and compete against each other and win the way we did."

Hightower already is finding elite company, receiving counsel during a recent dinner with Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher. He also respects Ray Lewis and Terrell Suggs of the Baltimore Ravens.

"Wherever will have me would be great, but going to play with guys that you watched growing up when you're in middle school, and you want to be like this guy, to actually get on the field with those guys would be a dream come true," Hightower said.

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