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Highsmith is ready for the challenge: It might only be three pounds, something many football players don't even notice when they step on the scale, but for Alex Highsmith that weight has made a difference.
And it's not about putting on pounds, but he has added muscle this offseason, going from 250 pounds to between 253-254 pounds, something he set out to do as he prepares for his second season with the Steelers, one that will have him likely stepping into a starting outside linebacker role.
"It's a good three pounds," said Highsmith. "I am trying to maintain that going to camp this season. I am just coming in with the expectation, the mindset to be the best that I can be. I am coming in stepping into this role. I am excited and blessed to have this opportunity and I just know I have to go in and make the most of it.
"I feel like when the opportunity is presented to me, I have to take advantage. That is something I have been working for this offseason and I am going to continue working for the last couple of months of this offseason. It's exciting. I am ready for the challenge."
With the departure of Bud Dupree this offseason via free agency, it should be Highsmith who steps into his role at right outside linebacker, opposite of T.J. Watt. Highsmith is motivated to do the job, some of that coming from offseason reports by 'draft experts' that the Steelers needed to draft a replacement for Dupree.
"I did see some reports about that," said Highsmith. "That gave me more motivation, just be the best that I can be, continue to work harder. I think it shows they have faith in me to come in and earn the spot and role. It gave me more motivation to work harder."
Highsmith, selected in the third round in the 2020 NFL Draft from Charlotte, played in all 16 games last season, starting five. He finished the season with 48 tackles, including 30 solo stops, two sacks, an interception and a pass defense. With more playing time expected, he wants to add to those numbers big time, especially making splash plays, something that comes from working on his mental game as well as the physical side.
"I feel like I can always just continue to work on my mental game, study more film and just have the best IQ I can have," said Highsmith. "One thing I came into this offseason wanting to do was get stronger, gain a few pounds, just put on a lot of muscle. I feel like I have done that. I feel like I have gotten stronger. Just be strong in the run game, strong in pass rush. Also, just polishing my moves. I feel like it's been a great offseason so far. I am ready for people to see all that I have been working on."
Dotson looking to be more aggressive: The Steelers offensive line is going to have a new look in 2021 with the offseason retirement of Maurkice Pouncey, and the departure of Alejandro Villanueva and Matt Feiler via free agency.
But second year guard Kevin Dotson said it comes with the territory, and they have to move forward and come together as a unit, starting now during the team's OTAs.
"We've just got to adapt," said Dotson. "My offensive lines of any team I have been on, we have been able to plug people in and still be able to do what they need to get done. We are going to miss the leadership of Pouncey and them, but we are going to have to adjust. We can't hold on to it. We have to move on and start our own stuff."
There was no doubt Pouncey was the leader of the offensive line, an 11-year veteran who had his finger on the pulse not just of the group, but the team as a whole. Dotson is confident someone will emerge as the leader of the group, and he believes it will happen sooner rather than later.
"I feel like it's going to be one of those things where somebody falls into that role," said Dotson. "It's not known right now, like he will for sure be the leader. I think it will be around Game 2 or 3 that we will find out who the leader of the offensive line will be."
Right now the person who is taking control of the line is new offensive line coach Adrian Klemm. Klemm was promoted this offseason to offensive line coach, after he spent the last two seasons as the team's assistant offensive line coach.
Dotson said Klemm mentored him last year, was the person he would go to with questions and now he embraces his aggressive approach.
"I feel like there is a little more intensity," said Dotson of Klemm's approach. "There is more aggression even the way we come off the blocks. Even the verbiage he uses in meetings is way more aggressive. Not just saying 'get the blocks,' but 'run through his face.' He is using more aggressive terms and I feel like that pushes our mindset in that way.
"I want to be more of that aggressive guy. I am kind of aggressive already. I want to be that guy that they just know he is going to do extra; you better make sure you are ready for this game type of guy for the defensive line. I am trying to improve upon that. I want to be conditioned enough to be able to go the whole game, going 100 percent."
Dotson is using the offseason, from the time it ended until training camp starts, to be ready to be that guy and make the jump from year one to year two. Dotson, who played at the University of Louisiana, started four games in 2020, two at right guard and two at left guard. He played in 13 games and proved to be a strong force in pass protection. This offseason he has focused on left guard, making sure he is going to be ready to step in.
"They wanted me to train more left," said Dotson. "That is where they have me now. That is what I did the whole offseason was train for the left side. Just to be a little more comfortable in it. Last year when I played in it, I really wasn't too comfortable. I feel like I am way more comfortable now.
"I just feel more prepared. I know what's to come. Last year all of the COVID stuff, I had no idea when I was supposed to come to Pittsburgh. I had no idea what we were going to do, what type of practices. Now I can expect it and I know what to work for. I worked for it all offseason."
The Steelers participate in day 2 of the 2021 Organized Team Activities at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex
Sharing advice with rookies: A year ago, Alex Highsmith and Kevin Dotson were living in a virtual football world.
There were no OTAs, there was no hitting the weight room, there was no getting to know your teammates.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the NFL offseason, and the two then rookies were trying to adapt to the NFL over zoom.
Fast forward a year and it's completely different. OTAs are in person, even though some meetings are still virtual.
"It's been cool to have in person OTAs. It's been awesome," said Highsmith. "To be able to come in, get ahead on the plays, to get some reps. I feel like the young guys need to take advantage of now and they are. It's been awesome so far and I am looking forward to the rest of OTAs and minicamp coming up."
For the 2021 rookies, they are experiencing the NFL offseason the way they should be, getting OTAs in from the get-go, even if there are some tweaks that need to be made. The one thing that has been a constant, though, is having in person football means the rookies are able to tap into the veteran's experience and learn from those who have been there, done it. Even though they are only in their second season, both Highsmith and Dotson are happily sharing some pointers. Highsmith even spoke to the rookies during a zoom meeting before OTAs began, sharing what he learned as a rookie and offering some strong advice.
"(I told them) to come in and just outwork everyone, make the most of your opportunity," said Highsmith. "A lot of people want to be in the position we are in, being in the NFL. We are blessed to play the game we love for a living. The average career span in the NFL is two or three years. Make the most of your opportunity. Come in and work, eliminate distractions. Come in and focus on the task at hand, winning the Super Bowl here."
Dotson said that being a rookie can't ever be used as an excuse for not being prepared, because once you are in the NFL, the expectations are there.
"The main thing I want to tell them is once you take your first snap in the league, you are no longer a rookie," said Dotson. "We're going to hold you to that high expectation, even in practice. Even if you haven't played a game, once you made it to the league you really aren't a rookie anymore. People don't have sympathy, thinking well this is his first year. If you get plugged in, you need to be able to compete. We can't slow up for anybody. I feel like they'll be able to do this. I feel like they are able to compete with NFL guys."
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