There is a reason that, for the most part, NFL teams stick to drafting players from the Power 5 conferences and expand out from there. Many teams rarely ever dip their toes into the ‘small schools’, so to speak. Even the Pittsburgh Steelers don’t do it much, but they have done it a bit more lately.
In 2016, they hit a home run with the selection of Javon Hargrave out of SC State. More recently, they were able to find a very promising player out of Charlotte in Alex Highsmith in the third round last year.
You can try to think the world of yourself when you’re coming into the league from a small school, but even if you believe in your own abilities and know that you are capable of being at this top level, the bottom line is that you know you will be viewed with skepticism from the outside, and that was the case with Highsmith.
“All these guys from the Power 5 schools were there. My head coach and strength coach from Charlotte came to visit me. My head coach, Will Healy, said two words to me before I worked out. He said, ‘you belong’”, he recalled during his Combine experience, as he told Teresa Varley for the team’s website.
“I know I belong no matter where I am. That was the mindset I had going out there that night, that yes, I do belong. I felt like I had a good Combine workout after he told me that. It was just awesome”, he added. “My first game here, Monday Night Football, once I got out there, I knew that I belonged. That is something I have known, that I belong, but hearing it mattered”.
He ended up having a successful rookie season, playing a lot at the end of the year after Bud Dupree was injured, and finishing with a very commendable 48 total tackles, including five for loss. He also had two sacks and six quarterback hits, in addition to an interception.
With Dupree a pending free agent, Highsmith could find himself moving into the starting lineup on a full-time basis. If the Steelers give him that opportunity, it will really cement the message that they believe in him and know he belongs. Sometimes actions speak louder than words.