Skip to main content
The Saban Top 100: No. 15 Dont'a Hightower

The Saban Top 100: No. 15 Dont'a Hightower

Publish date:

The Saban Top 100: No. 15 Dont'a Hightower

BamaCentral is ranking the top 100 players of the Nick Saban era at Alabama over the course of the 2020 football season

15] Dont'a Hightower, LB

  • 2011 Consensus All-American
  • 2011 All-SEC
  • 25th-overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft
  • Was the leading tackler and captain on the 2011 defense, which led the nation in all four major statistical categories (total, scoring, rushing pass-efficiency defense)
  • Finished career with 235 tackles, including 21.0 for a loss and five sacks, to go with two interceptions, three forced fumbles and two recovered
  • Twice named team captain

Even after the snap of the ball, the threat may still have not been apparent. That’s the way Alabama coaches wanted it, and drew it up.

Then, suddenly, there’s the blur, either through the middle or from one of the sides, but unmistakable to those who had been following linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

During that instant, imagine what went through the mind of the quarterback, who suddenly knew what was coming and despite wishing to the contrary couldn’t do much to counter. It was already too late, his options were to try and get of the ball and take the oncoming hit, or simply brace himself.

“BAM!” came the initial blow, followed by an airborne moment of almost nothing, sort of like the eye of a hurricane with the peacefulness sandwiched between massive amounts of destruction. Then finally the “THUD” of a gruesome landing amplified by his 6-foot-4, 260-pound body.

“I don’t even know how to describe it, it’s the best feeling in the world,” Hightower said. “Getting a sack … I’d rather get a shot at the quarterback. The first hit you get, when you hit him and he goes “ugh,” or you hear him groan, you hear him moan, you see him get up slow, that’s one of the best feelings you can have.”

Time after time quarterbacks experienced that during the 2011 season, followed by the process of making sure everything was still intact.

Yeah, No. 30 loved it all.

“That makes me just feel incredible,” Hightower said.

So did the season as a whole, with Alabama’s defense doing its rendition of college football’s equivalent to the Death Star. The three-and-out unit knocked quarterbacks out of games, kept every running back from reaching 100 yards, and punished opponent after opponent both physically and on the scoreboard.

A good example was Tennessee. Not only were the Volunteers kept out of the red zone, never mind the end zone, but they failed to get a first down on 10 of 12 possessions. Leading Alabama was Hightower, who nearly returned an interception of a Nico Johnson deflection for a touchdown in addition to notching a sack, two pass break-ups and three quarterback hurries.

Along the way not only did he get in a punishing shot on quarterback Matt Simms, who passed for just 58 yards, but running back Tauren Poole to force an incompletion.

Johnson compared Hightower’s play that night to being a “Wild animal.” Nick Saban called his performance “outstanding.” Even Hightower said it was his best game yet. Consequently, he was named both the Southeastern Conference’s defensive player of the week, and the Lott Impact Trophy’s national player of the week.

“It’s the first game I’ve played that I can actually say that I played with a lot of passion and had a lot of heart for,” said the native of Lewisburg, Tenn., who wanted to show why he opted for Tuscaloosa. “It was a game that I was really looking forward to. Being 3-0, and this might be my last year here, going 4-0 against my home-state team, as good as the rivalry is it means a lot to me, kind of like how the Iron Bowl means a lot to some guys in Alabama. The Tennessee game means that much to me and my family back home.”

Although Hightower was far from being the lone standout on the Alabama defense, which ended up finishing the season ranked No. 1 in all four major team defensive categories (total, scoring, rushing and pass-efficiency defense) he’s the one everything centered around.

In front of him, nose tackle Josh Chapman was the heart of the line and helped clog things up for others to make plays. To the side, Courtney Upshaw was like a tag-team partner, and if one wasn’t making the play it’s usually because the other already did. To the rear, safety Mark Barron topped the team in production points and continued to tackle like his cousin, Hightower.

“It’s almost as if we take turns,” Hightower said.

Specifically about Upshaw, whom he had a contest with to see who can hit the most quarterbacks, he added: “I always know where Courtney is. He’s going to make that ball come inside, and he’s going to make the play. That’s happened multiple times. He’s just a wall out there. I know that when they’re running the ball over there Courtney is going to make the tackle 95 percent of the time. “

That was a far cry from the previous season, when things never quite seemed to click, or develop the kind of execution Alabama had on the 2009 national championship team. In addition to the young secondary and numerous key injuries, Hightower was coming off knee surgery and thrown into the middle where he wasn’t comfortable, only to get moved back to weakside linebacker a month into the season.

By 2011, though, he preferred the middle, where he dodn’t have to think to react and everything become more fluid. That’s not only with his playmaking and tackling, but being the guy who made all the calls and adjustments. Hightower even got to the point that he could frequently tell what defensive coordinator Kirby Smart was going to call before signaling it in.

“Sometimes in practice I do things that Coach Smart is like, ‘I never thought about you can do that,’” he said. “I feel like I’ve gotten to where I can make checks and calls that I year ago I wouldn’t know what the heck I was talking about.

“Last year I could have made the check, but I wouldn’t know why we were doing it, what I was supposed to be doing. That comes with film study, getting with Coach Smart and learning the defense not just as a player, but as a student.”

Thus the extra experience, maturity and leadership translated to the field and helped provide an element that had been lacking. Teammates said it was a lot like when Rolando McClain was at the heart of the defense and won the Butkus Award as the nation’s most outstanding linebacker.

He had a lot of bone-jarring hits as well. The kind where everyone watching held his or her breath because under that airborne linebacker there was a wrapped-up quarterback about to land hard on his backside.

“It’s more about bragging rights,” Hightower said. 

The Saban Top 100 will be revealed over the course of the 2020 football season, with the top players unveiled one a day as part of BamaCentral's 25 Days of Christmas celebration.

Read More

The series thus far:

Introduction

No. 16: Jerry Jeudy

No. 17: Jalen Hurts

No. 18: Reuben Foster

No. 19: Chance Warmack

No. 20: Mark Barron

No. 21: Jonah Williams

No. 22: Da'Ron Payne

No. 23: Ryan Kelly

No. 24: Landon Collins

No. 25: Cam Robinson

26-30: Terrence Cody, Calvin Ridley, Javier Arenas, Reggie Ragland, Jedrick Wills Jr.

31-35: Dee Milliner, D.J. Fluker, Marlon Humphrey, Rashad Evans, A'Shawn Robinson

36-40: Rashaan Evans, Dre Kirkpatrick, Marcell Dareus, Eddie Jackson, O.J. Howard

41-45: Courtney Upshaw, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Henry Ruggs III, Jarran Reed, Xavier McKinney

46-50: Dalvin Tomlinson, Antoine Caldwell, Kareem Jackson, Cyrus Kouandjio, Trevon Diggs

51-55: Mike Johnson, T.J. Yeldon, Ronnie Harrison, Damien Harris, JK Scott

56-60: Ross Pierschbacher, Eddie Lacy, Bradley Bozeman, Ryan Anderson, Glen Coffee

61-65: Greg McElroy, Josh Jacobs, Anfernee Jennings, James Carpenter, Kenyan Drake

66-70: Terrell Lewis, Blake Sims, Christian Miller, Irv Smith Jr., Tim Williams

71-75: Mack Wilson, ArDarius Stewart, Deionte Thompson, Raekwon Davis, Jalston Fowler

76-80: Josh Chapman, Cyrus Jones, Kevin Norwood, Isaiah Buggs, Jake Coker

81-85: Bo Scarbrough, Anthony Averett, Leigh Tiffin, Ed Stinson, DeQuan Menzie

86-90: Jesse Williams, Shaun Dion Hamilton, William Vlachos, Da'Shawn Hand, Arie Kouandjio

91-95: Nico Johnson, Wallace Gilberry, DJ Hall, Vinnie Sunseri, Quinton Dial

96-100: Trey DePriest, Damion Square, Christion Jones, John Parker Wilson, Simeon Castille 

15] Dont'a Hightower, LB

  • 2011 Consensus All-American
  • 2011 All-SEC
  • 25th-overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft
  • Was the leading tackler and captain on the 2011 defense, which led the nation in all four major statistical categories (total, scoring, rushing pass-efficiency defense)
  • Finished career with 235 tackles, including 21.0 for a loss and five sacks, to go with two interceptions, three forced fumbles and two recovered
  • Twice named team captain
Member Exclusive

Get Exclusive Access to Bama Central Content