AFC North

Alex Highsmith Joins the Steel Curtain Defense

Steelers Defense. Photo by Erik Drost. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

When the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Alex Highsmith in the 3rd round, it came as a surprise to many. He was not heavily recruited by the FBS (formerly Division 1-A). In fact, the only schools that showed any interest in him were Davidson, a Pioneer League program that does not offer a scholarship and Furman, whose options for scholarships were limited. Luckily for Highsmith, an unlikely connection to the University of Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC) afforded the edge rusher with a unique opportunity. Speaking at the NFL combine, Highsmith told reporters that he passed along his game film to a rival coach, Scott Braswell, whose son Scotty was a Graduate Assistant at UNCC. 

After Redshirting as a walk-on during his Freshman year for the 49ers, Highsmith was awarded a scholarship heading into his sophomore season and played sparingly off the bench in both 2016 and 2017. The following season, the 6-4, 250 pound DT set a program record with 17.5 tackles for a loss.  As a senior, Highsmith tallied a career high 75 tackles (21.5 for a loss) and broke the club record for sacks in a season (14). He was also on the watch list for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given to the Nation’s Best College Defensive Player. 

Known to his teammates and coaches as an extremely hard worker. Highsmith strives to make a positive impact in the locker room.

At the NFL Combine, Highsmith finished near the top among linemen in every drill he ran. Running a 4.7 second 40-yard dash, a vertical jump of 33 inches and an impressive three-cone drill (7.3 seconds). His agile frame and quick reflexes allow him to elude blockers while his keen instincts lead him to find the opposing ball carrier. Highsmith finished his career at UNCC with 185 tackles (115 solo) and 20 sacks.

His other strengths include a relentless motivation to hone his skills and get better.  As a collegiate walk-on at UNCC, Highsmith plays with a huge chip on his shoulder as though he always has something to prove. Coming from a smaller school, there are questions about the quality of competition he faced. UNCC faced Clemson last season and Highsmith fared well against the ACC powerhouse. Credited with three tackles and a sack, his performance against the Tigers drew praise from Clemson players and coaches alike. 

Highsmith is also known to his teammates as an extremely hard worker who is ready to make a positive impact in the locker room for the Steelers. 

Among his weaknesses are his size and strength, which are significantly lower than what is typically needed to succeed as a pass rusher in the NFL. Of course, this can be addressed by spending quality time in the weight room. He will also have to adjust from playing defensive end in the 4-3 scheme employed by UNC Charlotte, to the role of OLB in the Steelers’ vaunted 3-4 defense. Highsmith mentioned at the combine that he was working on his coverage with the help of a linebackers’ coach as well as a defensive line coach. 

When the Steelers selected Highsmith with the 102nd pick in the 2020 NFL Draft, their eyes were not on how he can have an immediate impact for the black and yellow, but where he might fit in long term. It is expected that the 3rd round pick will replace the departed Anthony Chickillo on special teams and perhaps occasionally fill in for Bud Dupree or Pro Bowler T.J. Watt. With Dupree only signed through this season, Highsmith is poised to compete with Olasunkanmi Adeniyi to start at OLB opposite Watt in 2021. 

ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. named Alex Highsmith his favorite pick of the third round. 



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