Generally, when a small-school product gets drafted in the early rounds, it’s from a guy who has a strong and consistent body of work over a period of years. That’s not to say that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ third-round pick this year, Alex Highsmith out of Charlotte, wasn’t doing well early on. But his senior season was truly his breakout year. And it’s not a coincidence that it coincided with a new coaching staff and essentially a new position.
While Highsmith credited the new staff for helping to unlock the potential that he put on display during his senior season, Charlotte head coach Will Healy was reluctant to share in on those accolades during an interview with Missi Matthews.
“He’s a ready-made guy well before we got there”, he said of his former player. “We were fortunate enough to be able to inherit him and coach him for a year. I think Marcus West did a really good job with him as he went through a transition of really playing a different position. He was in a three-down front for a little while. I feel like he’s played everywhere but quarterback for us”.
During his junior season, playing more as an interior defender, Highsmith still managed 60 tackles and 18.5 for a loss, which make no mistake is a big deal. But he had just three sacks, and six for his career up to that point. With the move over to the perimeter, he put up 15 sacks in his senior season, with 21.5 tackles for loss.
“Moving him to defensive end and giving him the ability to rush the passer was something easy for us to get him to buy into”, Healy said. “I think where he showed tremendous strides is his repertoire of pass-rush moves. Once he got a taste of sacking the quarterback, it added fuel to the fire, and he goes from a walk-on to this year he finished second in the country in sacks”.
The Steelers made it a priority to add depth to the outside linebacker position after releasing Anthony Chickillo in a cap-cutting move that most people saw coming. Though they were able to get Bud Dupree locked up under the franchise tag, and return T.J. Watt after a first-team All-Pro third season, the depth behind their starters left much to be desired.
The top reserves entering the draft were only Olasunkanmi Adeniyi and Tuzar Skipper, a pair of undrafted free agents over the previous two draft classes, both of them coming out of Toledo. Neither has made any kind of impact in a meaningful game yet—not that they have been given many opportunities.
Still, even though he comes out of a small school, Highsmith adds some pedigree to the position, coming in as a productive college player who tested well and raised his stock into a day-two draft pick. Now it’s up to him, and the coaching staff, to prove that the pick was justified.