A crucial piece of the pre-draft process is delving beneath the surface to unearth compelling stories of triumph, sacrifice, and perseverance from prospects often unbeknownst to those outside the draft community. Charlotte edge rusher Alex Highsmith is one of the players poised to make the climb from small-school sleeper to sought-after commodity in the 2020 NFL Draft. Though his journey was marred with roadblocks and detours, persevering through adversity helped mold Highsmith into an ascending NFL prospect.
Growing up in Wilmington, North Carolina, Alex Highsmith lived merely fifteen minutes from the beach and had the luxury of going whenever he wanted.
Instead, he spent his youth competing in seemingly everything.
Whether it was basketball, football, baseball, or competitive youth swimming — he won first place in freestyle and butterfly in the county championships — Alex was always looking for his next challenge.
In fact, it was back when he was in elementary school that his father, Sam Highsmith, recognized his son’s relentless energy and competitive drive.
“[Alex] was real, real active,” Sam recalled. “He always wanted to be outside, until he really fell in love with video games, then that kind of changed a little bit. He was always competitive; the kids in the neighborhood would be playing games, and he wanted to be involved. He’d be at birthday parties and other events and he would stay out there and play. He had a desire to compete at a young age.”
Alex eventually carried his competitive streak over to the gridiron, playing flag football in first and second grade, before ultimately moving on to Pop Warner. Though Pop Warner worked wonders in preparing him for his next phase of football, Alex struggled with the program’s strict weight limit restrictions.
“The funny thing was, with Pop Warner, you have to keep that weight,” Sam explained. “Our biggest struggle for all four or five years of Pop Warner football was getting him to make weight. We had to drink a lot of water, we had to basically give him a certain diet — cut down on junk food, cut down on the carbs. Every season, that’s what he had to do because he was a naturally bigger kid.”
After playing primarily on the offensive line in middle school, Alex evolved into a two-way star at Eugene Ashley High School (Wilmington, NC), assuming the role of middle linebacker and fullback in the Screaming Eagles’ triple-option offense.
In the months that followed his sophomore season, Alex underwent a body transformation that would ultimately jump-start his football career. Along with a three-inch growth spurt, one of Alex’s coaches persuaded him to take a 7:00 A.M. weightlifting class that summer. Alex proved to be an avid participant in the early morning workouts — and the results were evident.
“I remember seeing pictures of him in the spring of his sophomore year, and his face was still really round,” Sam said. “But, after football workouts in the summer, and he took that picture in the beginning of his junior year, I said, ‘Oh my gosh, it just melted away.'”
As a senior, Alex was named Eugene Ashley’s Most Valuable Player, and also earned second-team All-Area and first-team All-Mideastern Conference honors.
Despite a strong finish to his high school career, Highsmith generated little buzz in recruiting circles. Amazingly, only Davidson College and Furman University showed significant interest, while UNC Charlotte offered him an opportunity as a walk-on. After weighing his options, Highsmith chose Charlotte.
“I loved everything about it,” Highsmith said. “Finding out that Charlotte was a start-up football team, it was just awesome. I thought it would be special to be part of a start-up program and really build a legacy, build a foundation for the program. That’s what really drew me to Charlotte.”
Walk-on to All-American
As a walk-on, the arduous path to prominence begins at the bottom of the depth chart.
One-time high school standouts become virtual unknowns, practices generally consist of toiling in relative anonymity, and game days are often spent inauspiciously on the sideline.
In Highsmith’s case, he was given the redshirt designation as a freshman, and spent the year on the scout team. As a member of the scout team, Highsmith worked tirelessly to improve his craft on the field, in the film room, and in the weight room.
By the start of his redshirt freshman campaign, Highsmith’s hard work started to pay dividends; he earned a spot on the depth chart and appeared in 12 games (one start), collecting 17 tackles (two for loss), and a sack.
Following his first season of production at the collegiate level, Highsmith battled a significant weight increase. Arriving on campus at 225 pounds a year earlier, he was now tipping the scale at 255.
“The end of my redshirt freshman year, I was up to 255,” Highsmith said. “But it was a bad 255; I didn’t know anything about nutrition. I gained what they call the ‘freshman 15′. I was just eating anything; I’d go to the cafeteria every day and eat pizza, anything to gain weight.”
Highsmith’s struggles came to a head after pulling his hamstring while running sprints on his own at his former high school. To add insult to injury, he was sick for the majority of the semester, and lost nearly 20 pounds.
The athletic edge rusher recovered in time for spring practices, however, where he impressed coaches with his impactful play and steady development. Before he headed back to Wilmington for the summer, Highsmith was called to 49ers’ coach Brad Lambert’s office — where he learned he’d been awarded a full scholarship.
The following offseason, Highsmith prioritized his nutrition. Cutting back on video games, TV, and phone time, he instead invested his idle time preparing meals and cooking for himself.
“We never had a grill in the first couple years at our house, which I hated,” Highsmith said. “We finally got one in the summer of 2018, and that’s what really changed the game. I’d be up there grilling at least 5-6 times a week that summer. That really helped me a lot, learning how to grill.”
It wasn’t long before Highsmith put on 10 pounds the right way, and he played his redshirt junior year at 245 pounds. His play on the field was a testament to his hard work; he racked up 60 tackles (17.5 for loss), three sacks, and two forced fumbles, earning himself 2018 first-team All-Conference USA honors for his efforts.
Approaching his redshirt senior season, Highsmith was now a known commodity to the college football world. His named appeared on the Chuck Bednarik Award watch list (awarded annually to the top collegiate defensive player), and the Reese’s Senior Bowl watch list. Many felt the ascending edge rusher was poised for a breakout.
Highsmith delivered in a big way. In 13 games, the edge rusher compiled 75 tackles (21.5 for loss), 14 sacks, a forced fumble, and eight quarterback hits, with standout performances coming against Old Dominion (4.5 sacks) and Clemson (one sack).
Following the Clemson game, Highsmith drew high praise from Tigers left tackle Jackson Carman:
“He was a dude. I’ve been playing football for 12 years and he’s by far the fastest off the ball I’ve ever gone against. Ever. – Clemson LT Jackson Carman
Among his impressive haul of accolades, Highsmith was named a 2019 third-team All-American by AP and Pro Football Focus, becoming the first Charlotte player to earn All-American honors.
To cap off Charlotte’s first winning season in program history, Highsmith, along with running back Benny LeMay and tackle Cameron Clark, proudly represented the 49ers at the 2020 East-West Shrine Bowl.
The week in Saint Petersburg, Florida was especially significant for Highsmith, an egregious Senior Bowl snub. Instead of looking at the disappointing result as a conclusion, Highsmith instead used it as an opportunity to prove to evaluators that he belonged among the nation’s best. The message was well-received; Highsmith dominated Shrine practices and was decidedly the best player in attendance.
2020 NFL Scouting Combine
“It’s probably going to be the most mentally tiring week of my life. I’m getting myself ready for the week, not just physically, but mentally as well.”
As his grueling workouts at EXOS Phoenix began to taper off last week, Alex Highsmith couldn’t help but look ahead to what most next-level prospects often refer to as the biggest job interview of their careers: the NFL Scouting Combine.
There are few players with more to gain from a solid performance in Indianapolis than Highsmith. It was only a few years ago that the budding edge rusher was working vigorously on the scout team, with playing time and a scholarship all but assured.
For Highsmith, a stellar performance at the Combine could be what catapults the small-school phenom into the third-round conversation. Possessing a lighting-fast get-off, active hands, innate instincts, and a lethal 1-2 combination of pass rush moves, he has the intangibles that teams covet.
At 6-foot-4, 248 pounds, Highsmith is sure to entice NFL brass with his scheme versatility as a potential 4-3 defensive end or 3-4 outside linebacker. In Indianapolis, he will have the opportunity to perform in both drills.
NFL outlook for Highsmith
While Alex Highsmith is almost assuredly a top-100 prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft, pass rushers of his caliber are in high demand and often come off the board sooner than anticipated. If he manages to clear the high bar of expectations he set for himself at the Combine, and ace the team interviews as expected, Highsmith’s stock will soar in the coming weeks.
Whichever team is fortunate enough to land Highsmith will not only be adding a phenomenal talent, but perhaps an even better person. His support system is also second to none, led by his sister, Lauryn, and parents, Sam and Pam Highsmith, whose upbringing and undying support isn’t lost on their son:
“I’ve been blessed to have the two best parents that I could ever ask for,” Highsmith said. “I’m just thankful for everything they’ve done for me. They came to every single game my senior year and almost every one for the first three years. I didn’t even play my redshirt year, and they still came to all the games just to see me and support the team. I love them so much, and I’m thankful for them. They mean so much to me.”
Regardless of where he ends up or what round he comes off the board, Alex Highsmith doesn’t believe in taking his foot off the gas. That enormous chip on his shoulder, his father says, is here to stay.
“That desire to prove people wrong will never go away,” Sam said.
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