Alex Highsmith: How the chip on his shoulder helped him make the NFL (“1on1 with Jon Evans” podcast)

Alex Highsmith is the guest on the new "1-on-1 with Jon Evans" podcast.

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Alex Highsmith has never let obstacles get in his way.

He’s fought through opposing blockers on football fields in order to tackle running backs, wide receivers and quarterbacks. When college recruiters did not give him much attention coming out of Ashley High School in Wilmington, Highsmith walked-on to play college football with UNC Charlotte in 2015. Hard work and success earned him a full scholarship with the 49ers two years later. More hard work and success led the Associated Press and Pro Football Focus to name Highsmith as 3rd team all-American as a senior, the first player in program history to receive the designation. The Pittsburgh Steelers selected the defensive end in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, appearing to complete Highsmith’s rise to the top of the profession.

Only, that’s not how he looks at it. That’s never how Alex Highsmith has looked at it.

“A lot of guys when they get to this level, they feel like they’ve made it and they don’t want to work much harder,” Highsmith said during a break in his off-season workouts in Charlotte. “That’s the thing for me, continuing my work ethic and continuing to be humble, and know I can get better.”

Maybe the chip on Highsmith’s shoulder comes from being an unheralded recruit for a high school team that went winless during his senior season. No matter. It is engrained in the 6′4″, 240 pound young man. His Christian Faith and love for his family may be the only things that run deeper. It is evident during conversations about his rookie season with the Steelers. While reporters and analysts point out the positive results, 48 tackles (30 solo), two quarterback sacks and one interception while playing in all 16 games and starting five contests, Highsmith is much more critical of his performance.

“Overall, I’d give it a C-minus,” he says when asked to put a grade on his play. “I know it can be a lot better. That’s the attitude I have, no matter how good I play, I always feel like played like a C-minus and need to get better. That’s just the mindset I’m gonna have. No matter if I get three sacks in a game or zero sacks, I know I can always play better.”

It did not take long for Highsmith to realize the difference between the college game and professional football. He felt he belonged even during the team’s first mini-camp following the draft. But the speed of the game is what took time to master.

“When we started camp, those first few days when we started running plays from the playbook, that’s when it was ‘This is different, I’ve gotta study more because the more you know your plays, the faster you’ll play’,” he remembers saying. “But, I felt the more reps I got in practice, the more reps I got in games, the more it slowed down for me. That’s something I was proud of myself for, that I kept getting more reps because the game slowed down for me.”

During this offseason, Highsmith is concentrating on his speed and strength training, to better withstand the punishment the game of football takes on the human body. That’s one aspect of the game he says fans might not realize, along with the amount of off-field work the players and coaches put in every week.

“I feel that people who watch football really don’t know all the hours and extra time put in watching the film,” he said. “Because you can go out there and practice all week, but if you don’t know your opponent, and know what’s going to come, you’re not going to make plays on Sundays. People don’t really know the extra work that a lot of us put in.”

During our interview, Alex talked about the importance of his family’s support in striving for and reaching his goal of playing in the NFL, and he also shared how a coach from another high school in Wilmington played a role in his eventually landing a spot on the UNC Charlotte football team. I hope you enjoy the conversation with this impressive young man as much as I did.

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