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High hopes and a low-maintenance approach

He's put in enough time in the gym back home in North Carolina, both in Wilmington and Charlotte, to be in "some of the best shape of my life." He's Zoomed with the coaches enough to acquire a virtual if not practical knowledge of the Steelers' schemes on defense and special teams. And he's shared a field informally with veterans such as Cam Heyward, Stephon Tuitt, Tyson Alualu and Dan McCullers and gotten a feel for how to work as a professional.

After all of that, third-round pick Alex Highsmith is understandably eager to take the next step.

"I'm itching for it," Highsmith declared today during a Zoom media session. "Since the moment I got drafted I've been wanting to get up here. Now that I'm finally here, it's awesome.

"I can't wait to get out there and put on pads. I'm so excited to get back on the field. It's been a long time coming. I definitely got the football itch to get back out there on the field."

Highsmith, an outside linebacker from North Carolina-Charlotte, will have to wait a while longer to make the pads pop.

The first padded practice of Training Camp 2020 won't occur until Aug. 17.

But today was the official opening of the improvised preseason agreed upon by the NFL and the NFLPA.

That made today a significant step forward for rookies such as Highsmith, even if the agenda mostly included more virtual meetings and COVID-19 testing.

Eventually, the Steelers will actually get to play a game.

And if they should ask Highsmith for 10 or so pass-rush snaps in relief of T.J. Watt or Bud Dupree on Sept. 14 against the New York Giants, Highsmith insists he'll be ready to deliver.

Even without the benefit of a rookie minicamp, OTAs, a veteran minicamp or any of the other traditional steps in transition this year's rookie class has lost to the pandemic.

"My confidence doesn't waiver because of this," he said. "I don't get rattled by adversity. Whatever I can do, just be the best I can be. No matter what the adversity is, I'm still gonna do it.

"I'm just ready and excited for the opportunity."

To earn it he'll have to inspire in the coaches the same level of confidence Highsmith has in himself.

For that, too, he has a plan.

"I'm definitely doing whatever I can over these next few weeks to make this roster and contribute any way I can," Highsmith said. "One of my old coaches, Ulrick Edmonds, my position coach at Charlotte, always said to be a low-maintenance guy. What he meant by that is to be someone who always shows up on time, shows up early, who's always doing the right things, who never misses anything. You don't want to be a guy, he calls those guys high-maintenance guys, those guys who cause a lot of problems.

Take a look at photography of the field being readied for training camp

"So really doing whatever I can, taking that part, taking the no-talent things like putting in good effort, being on time, studying, watching extra film with the coaches and stuff like that is something that's going to help myself. I also have to play special teams, as well.

"I'm going to do whatever I can whether that's special teams or defense, do whatever I can to get on the field, help this team chase a ring."

The next step will involve observing Watt and Dupree, the players Highsmith might be asked to temporarily replace on occasion as a rookie.

"I'm truly blessed to be able to learn from two of the best in the league," he said. "I truly believe that they're the best passing-rushing duo off the edge in this league.

"I'm just so excited to be able to learn from them. I've learned a lot from them already, little things just about my pass-rush game and studying film and stuff like that. I've already reached out to those guys about it.

"It's awesome to actually be with them now."

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