The week after every NFL draft has taken place you usually hear quite a few college coaches do several interviews in which they are asked to talk about players from their respective programs that were selected. Such interviews are already happening this year and on Tuesday it was Charlotte head coach Will Healy who was asked to discuss one of his former players, edge-rusher Alex Highsmith, the Pittsburgh Steelers third-round draft pick this year, during his appearance on 93.7 The Fan. Right out of the chute, Healy was asked to comment on if he feels Highsmith has an opportunity to really make a difference down the road or maybe even initially for the Steelers because of the style and scheme of the defense they play.
“Yeah, I think the biggest thing with Alex during the whole draft process was where would he play? You know, he’s 6-4, 250-pounds,” Healy said. “Is he a 6-technique? Is he a rush end? I had a lot of people call me about him and if he would play middle linebacker. And Dallas and some people like that, like being one of their six foot four, 250-pound middle linebackers. Or is he a 3-4 guy that could rush the passer and drop? So, I think there’s a lot of versatility that he brings.
“I think the crazy thing about Alex is he’s done a little bit of everything in his five years at Charlotte. I mean, he’s had, I want to say it was five coordinators in five years here. He was a 5-technique, 4i in a three-down scheme the year before and then we moved him to more of a 6-technique, a little bit wider rush end, and he goes from two or three sacks to 14 sacks. So, whatever you ask him to do, I mean, we could ask him to play tight end or quarterback for all it would’ve mattered, and he’d had done it. He was the first one on the field, last one off.”
Healy had a little more to say about the progress that Highsmith made throughout his college career at Charlotte even though he only had the opportunity to coach him for his final season there.
“As a fifth-year senior that was a former walk-on they didn’t even invite to camp, he was a school-start walk-on for a program that was at that point in time an FCS program,” Healy said. “Just self-made. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it, we were just fortunate enough to inherit it him for our single season here and then watch him blossom. But our D-line coach Marcus West I think did a great job with him helping him get some tools in the pass rush game and everything we asked him to do, he flourished. So, he will be a great part of that organization. How fast? I don’t know, but I guarantee you he’ll at least be dominant on special teams and do everything that staff ask him to do.”
With Highsmith being a product of a smaller school, the questions about the quality of competition that he faced will always be called into question before he ever plays a single NFL down. On Tuesday, Healy was asked what particularly it is that he has seen from Highsmith that fortifies in him that a former walk-on at an FCS school at the time could go to the NFL and make an impact.
“Well, I think that the first thing is, what does his film look like versus Clemson and Tennessee and some of those guys?” Healy said. “Now, not all of them are getting drafted at those places by any stretch, but, I mean, you want to put on the highest level of competition you could find and see what type of productivity he has. And he played great against Clemson this year. I saw a lot of their offensive linemen’s names called out in the draft. So, when you stack him against the highest competition, he was really good and very productive.
“I think the other thing about it is, there’s always going to be a size, weight, speed component to it. Like, are you talented enough to just play the game? I think the thing about Alex, I have definitely coached players or played with players, whether it was at Richmond, Chattanooga, I mean we had, I want to say between Richmond and Chattanooga, there were maybe six defensive ends that were drafted. And so, I’ve been fortunate to be around some really good players. I don’t know if anybody has the drive that Alex has.”
Healy went on to talk more about Highsmith’s drive and determination that has gotten to where he is right now in his football career.
“Again, if the guy was six-foot-five, twitchy and ran 4.4 in high school, he wouldn’t have been a walk on at Charlotte,” Healy said. “So, there’s something that this guy has had a chip on his shoulder about for a long time and has been able to overcome to get to where he is right now. Now, I think part of his work ethic has provided for the get off and, you know, the size, speed, strength aspect of what he’s been able to accomplish. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a really good athlete. But I think when you include a really good athlete with a guy who’s got a chip on his shoulder and wants to prove people wrong, but yet in the right way. Not a chip on your shoulder, like, I’m a bad locker room guy, but a chip on your shoulder as in, I’m lucky to be where I am and I’m going to take advantage of it. I think it’s a scary combination.”
The game that Highsmith had in 2019 against Clemson really put him even more on the map. He was credited with three total tackles in that game and one sack. Stat-line aside, he displayed some nice pass rush moves in that game and was mentioned by Clemson coaches and player alike after the contest had ended. With that game seemingly being one of the main highlights of Highsmith’s college career, Healy was asked Tuesday if the edge-rusher sort of possesses a step-into-the-spotlight mentality when it comes to big games with tons of people watching.
“No, I think the greatest part about Alex Highsmith is he’s like that with no lights on in Jerry Richardson Stadium of day-14 of camp,” Healy said. “I mean, he practices like that. I think it gets more attention from a national perspective during those games. And obviously as a scout when they walked through our building, that’s the first game they want to pop on is, ‘let me see Clemson.’ But as far as how he is on a regular basis, there’s no bright lights makes him better. It’s the guy practices like that with nobody in the stands. And so I think that’s been the best part about it for me as a head coach trying to establish a culture is that I can look at him and say, ‘all right guys, this dude went from a walk on to a third round draft pick. This is the way he practices; this is the way he prepares.”
So, will Highsmith wind up flourishing with the Steelers? Time will certainly tell. The Steelers bet on Highsmith by spending a third-round draft pick on the Charlotte edge-rusher and Healy likes the chances of that gamble ultimately paying off for Pittsburgh.
“I’m telling you, if you asked me to bet on somebody, I’m betting on him,” Healy said of Highsmith. “I’ve never been around one that’s a better locker room culture, work ethic, the total package, that dude’s got it.”