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Sack-master Alex Highsmith hopes to go from walk-on to top-100 NFL Draft pick

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The Charlotte defensive end had an incredible senior season in 2019, drawing praise from a national championship-winning coach and ranking among the country’s sack leaders.

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Marshall v Charlotte Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images

Like many college freshmen, Alex Highsmith showed up for his first day of classes at UNC-Charlotte in the fall looking to find himself. Unlike most college freshmen, however, he walked on to a Division I football team after training camp had already completed. Now, four and a half years later, Highsmith is on the verge of hearing his name called in the 2020 NFL Draft.

Highsmith’s road to the NFL Scouting Combine and serious draft consideration is hardly a conventional one. As his walk-on story suggests, he had no scholarship offers coming out of high school. That meant that he spent his first year toiling on the scout team as he built up his body to withstands the rigors of college football.

“I worked my butt off on the scout team that first year to put myself in position to play special teams and make the travel roster that next year,” Highsmith said at the Combine on Thursday morning. “I started off on scout team my redshirt freshman year, then worked my way to a 2 and was a good backup. then had a really good spring in 2017 and that’s when I ended up earning a scholarship was after spring ball in 2017.”

Highsmith would play his final three years on scholarship for the 49ers, primarily playing linebacker before earning a starting job at defensive end as a junior in 2018. That year, he recorded three sacks, was a first-team all-Conference USA player, and set a school record for tackles for loss in a season with 17.5. But before his final season, Charlotte changed its coaching staff, bringing in Austin Peay head coach Will Healy to take over for the departing Brad Lambert.

That was when things changed for Highsmith, and when he really took off as a pass-rusher. Highsmith posted a whopping 14.0 sacks in 2019, crediting Healy and his new defensive line coach, Marcus West, for his dramatic rise.

“We got a whole new staff with coach Healy,” he said. “(Coach West) taught me so many little things about pass-rushing that I never knew before. How to read a lineman, how to read their set. Whether they’re a spot-setter or a vertical setter, whether they shoot their hands low or shoot their hands high.”

The 4-2-5 defense that Healy installed also helped with Highsmith’s success at getting to the quarterback. He said that this scheme gave him a lot of freedom on the edge, allowing him to react to the offensive tackle in front of him and use those observations that he began making about his opposition.

At 6-foot-3 and 248 pounds, Highsmith is ideally-suited to making the transition to 3-4 outside linebacker as well, and teams have predictably asked him about that. “I told them I’d be comfortable in either one, just as long as I can still rush the passer,” he said, but noted that he will be working in linebacker drills here in Indianapolis. That has been a large focus of his preparatory workouts over the past several weeks, particularly working on his coverage drops. “Scouts told me they want to see me move in space, see how athletic I am, so I’ve been working on that a lot.”

One of Highsmith’s most impressive games came in Charlotte’s week four game at Clemson, when he sacked backup quarterback Chase Brice once in a 52-10 blowout loss. Later on, however, Tigers left tackle Jackson Carman called Highsmith “by far the fastest off the ball I’ve ever gone against,” while Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said he was “the best player” that Clemson played in the first part of the season.

Highsmith relished the chance to play in that game in Death Valley, saying it gave him a lot of exposure in the eyes of scouts. “It was kind of a big game because that’s the game that scouts look at, how do you play against the great competition. It was really cool to be able to go in there and have one of my better games of the year.”

Off the field, Highsmith is an exercise science and kinesiology major, and he has an internship in sports performance while preparing for the NFL Draft. A North Carolina native, Charlotte was a natural fit for him. “I probably still would have gone to Charlotte (if I hadn’t played football) because I love the university and I love the city.”

Though he admitted he would love to play for his hometown Carolina Panthers, Highsmith — like every player here — said he’s excited to play for any NFL team. The Green Bay Packers could use a player like him to fill out the back end of their depth chart, and a mid-round draft pick could be the right place to look at that position. With Kyler Fackrell seemingly on track to move on in free agency, there are some snaps to go around behind Za’Darius and Preston Smith. Highsmith is at least on Green Bay’s radar, as he acknowledged that he met with the team during his week at the Shrine Bowl.

Perhaps the most impressive part about Highsmith’s interview, however, was what happened before it began. With about eight media members waiting around his table, he went up to each one to shake hands and introduce himself — something that this writer had never seen before in several years of covering the Combine.

The first question of the interview was about that introduction and the reason for it. “You never know who you meet — treat everyone with respect and treat everyone the way you want to be treated,” Highsmith said. “Coach Healy, that’s something that’s been instilled in us. Coach wanted us to go in and shake everybody’s hand. It really gets you to interact with people, meet new faces.”

A soft-spoken young man, Highsmith feels confident that his testing later this week will open some eyes and vault him into the first 100 picks of the 2020 NFL Draft. He said he is hoping to hear his name on day two, but that as a player from a smaller school, he feels that teams may underestimate him. “I just want to show people that I can play with the best of them. Just ready to prove myself at these workouts on Saturday, just ready to prove a lot of people wrong.”

This weekend, he will have the chance to do just that.