Alex Highsmith: Path to the Draft
After a breakout 2019 season, former Charlotte 49ers defensive end Alex Highsmith is making a serious climb up NFL Draft boards. When he comes off the edge and powers his way to another quarterback sack, the game appears to come so easily to him. However, as a small school prospect who has had to fight for every opportunity he has got, his journey has been nowhere near as easy as he makes the game look.
“I came in with a chip on my shoulder and a mindset to outwork everyone. Once I got the opportunity, I kinda ran with it. It was definitely tough but if you asked me if I wanted to do it again, I would definitely say that there’s no other way I want to have it. It taught me so many life lessons about perseverance, helped me increase my work ethic as well. I feel that’s what’s really driven me is my work ethic, that and my faith in god, has gotten me to where I am today.”
The Path to the Draft begins in Carolina
He began his journey to the NFL in Wilmington, North Carolina. The area would come to have a large impact on his football career. Sam and Pam Highsmith were big Carolina Panthers fans once the franchise arrived in Charlotte, and a young Alex Highsmith grew to love the game from his father.
“I really just think it came from my Dad. He never played it, but he loved the sport. Football was something he had me in since I got first got to play when I was 5-6, playing flag football. Then going up to Pop Warner and being able to hit was where I found a love for the game. I love the contact portion of the game, being able to unleash some anger on the field. It was really awesome, I fell in love with it. Football was my first love when it came to sport.”
As a die-hard Panthers fan, Alex Highsmith found inspiration in two players. One of them would go on to be a true great at the defensive end position.
“My two favourite players to watch were Julius Peppers and Steve Smith. Julius Peppers, as a defensive end, getting sacks, that’s what I loved to do as well. He just played the game with such a passion. Steve Smith, with all the trash talk he would always do, used to get me fired up watching the games. It was really cool. They’re probably my two favourite Panthers of all time. It was awesome watching them come up.”
Alex Highsmith excels at high school
Alex Highsmith took his talents from Pop Warner to the high school level. At Eugene Ashley High School, he was a multi-sport athlete playing basketball and baseball but knew that ultimately, football would be his avenue at a collegiate level. In his junior year he was voted the Most Improved Athlete on the football field, followed by a senior year that he was the team captain and voted team MVP.
“It meant a lot, you know. We didn’t have a really good season at all, our season senior was very bad. But it felt good to know that I went out there and did the best I could to help my team. I went out there in my senior season and played as hard as I could, to get that opportunity that I had at Charlotte.”
Coming out of Eugene Ashley, Alex Highsmith had interest from several colleges in the Carolina area, including Davidson who were the first to reach out, but he received no full scholarship offers. He would have to make it the hard way as a walk-on.
In Charlotte, he found the perfect place to do it.
“I went and toured the campus and immediately going into that campus I fell in love with it. It was such a great place. I found out that they were an up and coming program, a start up program, and I thought it would be really cool to be a part of that program. Charlotte was really the best option for me, and I do not regret going there at all. I love it and I’m a niner for life.”
From walk on to scholar athlete
The Charlotte 49ers football program had started in 2013 at the FCS level. 2015 would be their first year in the Conference USA. It would also be the year that Alex Highsmith arrived on campus. College and athlete have grown together, starting with Alex earning a full scholarship.
“I still remember that day, I’ll always remember that day. It was actually the day I was going to head home for the summer. I wasn’t going to come back for camp because I didn’t want my parents to pay for summer school. I was planning on working out on my own at my house and I was about to leave and Coach Lambert, who was our coach at the time, called me in to his office and said we’re going to put you on scholarship.”
“The emotions were crazy, you know. It was such an amazing feeling that my hard work had finally paid off. I’m just so thankful for the opportunity he gave me. It was awesome. I told all my boys on the team, told all my friends. I waited to tell my family until I got home that day. When I told my mum, my dad, my sister, they were all filled with joy, my mum was crying. It was awesome”
The hard work had paid off, but for Alex Highsmith, he knew there was a bigger prize to be had.
“That wasn’t the final goal, it was just a springboard for me to do better things on the field.”
2019 a breakout season for Alex Highsmith
As a fledgling program, the early years were tough but sure enough better things did happen on the field. In 2018, he tallied 18.5 tackles for loss and three sacks, equalling his college career sacks total in one season as the Charlotte 49ers won five games, the most in their short FBS history.
Then came 2019, a breakout season for both the program and for Alex Highsmith.
“It was definitely a good year. I had a goal when I got there to leave the place better than I found it and I feel like I did with the same guys that came in with me and graduated this year as well. This season was definitely awesome, after all the struggling we went through with our losing seasons, to see all our hard work pay off and to be finally able to go to a bowl game this season. It was just awesome. It’s so cool now to see the ceiling that the place has, it’s only going to grow from here. I’m excited to see what Coach Healy and the rest of the staff, and the players do there.”
Alex Highsmith led the Conference USA in tackles for loss and sacks in 2019. He was fourth in the entire NCAA for total sacks. He was on the Defensive Player of the Year watch list and became the first Charlotte 49er to be voted as an All-American. It’s an impressive list of accomplishments yet due to playing at a smaller school his name didn’t yet carry the weight it deserves heading into the NFL Draft.
Terrorising Tennessee and crushing Clemson
Thankfully for him, he has the tape to overcome the “small-school” doubters. Games against Tennessee and Clemson have given him the opportunity to show he can mix it with the big boys.
“It was an amazing opportunity to play against two top calibre teams like Clemson and Tennessee. The Tennessee game last year , that was really my first breakout game. I had a good season up to that point but that was the first game where I really took my game to the next level. It was the first game where people were like “Wow! That kid can really play”. That game was a blessing for sure.”
“Then Clemson this year. That wasn’t really a stat padding game for me but, you know, film wise I had a really great game and it was just fun playing against guys like Trevor Lawrence. It was an awesome experience.”
“It definitely helped me for my situation because people are probably wondering “what does he do against the big-time schools and elite calibre talent” and I just say, pull up my film against Tennessee and Clemson. That will speak for itself.”
Pass rush and spin moves define Alex Highsmith
What you see when you pull up that tape are the traits that will help Alex Highsmith succeed at the next level.
“My spin move is my go to. It’s something that I’ve been working on since I’ve been watching Chuck Smith’s training videos. He’s a pass rush guru, a pass rush/defensive line coach, and I’ve been watching his videos to learn that move myself and really perfected it for it to be my best move over the past couple of years. I love using it and it’s definitely something I’ll take to the next level.”
“My numbers didn’t really lie from this past year. It’s something that I feel I can bring to any team in the league. I’ll be able to get after the quarterback. That’s probably my best trait as a football player is my pass rushing.”
Proving he belongs at the Shrine Bowl
Filthy spin move from @highsmith34. Notice how he keeps the follow leg tight to his body as the spin finishes. Allows him to stay on course to the QB and not come out of the spin out of control.— Brett Yarris (@MVMTbx_Coach) February 11, 2020
Lots of great traits to work with and build on. https://t.co/akpuvkYlgr
In addition to the tape from the Clemson and Tennessee games, Alex Highsmith had the opportunity to show that he belongs with the best of the best in the East West Shrine Bowl.
“It was awesome, you know. It was definitely a blessing to be able to play in that game. It’s such an historic All-Star game. To be able to play with such elite calibre talent. You’ve got some of the best guys in the country there. It was a great week, great NFL exposure, learned a lot of things to prepare me for what the NFL is going to be like. I’m thankful that I was invited to it along with my two teammates, Benny LeMay and Cam Clark. It’s definitely an opportunity and a week that I’ll never forget.”
“It was really cool just putting myself out there, explaining to them that I’m really more than just a football player. It was really cool talking to scouts and getting that NFL exposure. Coach Lett being the defensive co-ordinator [for the East team], I got to show off a lot of my moves in front of him. He’s a defensive line coach for the Cowboys, they have some of the best pass rushers in the league, so it was really cool being able to showcase some of that stuff in front of him.”
Heading to the NFL Scouting Combine
One further opportunity for exposure to the NFL will present itself before the NFL Draft begins on April 23rd. Alex Highsmith was on the list of NFL Scouting Combine invites that went out in the last week. He’s currently training at EXOS out in Arizona and knows that it’s another opportunity to showcase what he can do, whilst proving that he belongs there.
“I knew coming into this season that it was going to be a breakout year for me, for our defense. That was definitely something that I saw, myself being in the position to go to the combine. Again, I’m blessed with the opportunity and it’s awesome to be able to go with teammates. It’s the first time we’ve had more than one guy at the combine and it’s awesome to see where this program is going.”
Hard work, determination, and faith about to pay off for Alex Highsmith at the NFL Draft
There’s certainly no doubt that the Charlotte 49ers are going places. They’re a program that has grown over the past five years, just like their star defensive end.
Alex Highsmith’s NFL Draft stock has risen as quickly as he gets to the quarterback, but he knows that it’s a result of hard work, determination and a combination of family and faith. As his reputation grows through the process, it’s this that helps keep his focus and his grounding.
“I’ve always been a humble guy, you know. I never really praised my own self and things like that. It’s been really cool to see Dabo Swinney [Clemson head coach] say nice things about me. It’s kinda cool to see now my name up on the board. People are starting to realise that I’m not just another small school prospect, I can actually play football. I can play with the big dogs. That’s what I want people to know about all three of us from Charlotte. Me, Cam Clark, and Benny LeMay. All three of us can play. So, it’s really cool to see my name being mentioned with some of the best guys in the draft.”
Which is exactly where Alex Highsmith’s name belongs.
OLIVER HODGKINSON IS A COLLEGE FOOTBALL WRITER FOR THE TOUCHDOWN. HE ALSO WRITES ON THE NFL FOR THE PRO FOOTBALL NETWORK. YOU CAN HEAR HIS OPINIONS ON ALL THINGS COLLEGE FOOTBALL AS ONE THIRD OF THE COLLEGE CHAPS PODCAST.
Feature Image Credit: Sam Roberts
Huge thanks to Alex Highsmith for taking the time to speak to us. Also to everyone at Wasserman football who helped connect us, especially Alexis Ramos and Rebecca Otto.