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Highsmith brings a relentless approach

Demon.

Wrecking ball.

They are words that might not be the most complimentary for the vast percentage of the population, but for a college linebacker, they are words which are welcomed.

And for Alex Highsmith, hearing the way he plays described like that is something he doesn't mind at all.

"I like those words on the field," said Highsmith. "My motor and effort are relentless in every aspect of the game. I can't wait to be a wrecking ball for the Steelers.

"I feel like I have a lot of room for growth. I am not close to reaching my potential. I can't wait to learn from T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree and work with the guys in the room. I can't wait to just be a sponge and learn everything I can and be the best player I can."

Highsmith, the Steelers third-round pick out of Charlotte, might have to wait a little while to do that on defense playing behind Watt and Dupree, but you can be sure he is going to jump right in on special teams right off the bat.

"I love everything about special teams," said Highsmith. "If I would have to say one thing I really love, it would be kickoff. That is something I specialized in. My first couple of years I played special teams in college and was a wrecking ball. I know a lot of kicks go in the end zone in the NFL, but I am ready for it."

Highsmith is coming off his best season with 15 sacks in 2019, finishing his college career with a school-record 20 sacks. He gives a lot of the credit for his breakout season to a new coaching staff at Charlotte, which included Head Coach Will Healy and co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Marcus West, who took Highsmith to the next level.

"He taught me so many things that I didn't know about pass rush, so many different moves," said Highsmith. "He told me when he got there that he wanted to make me the best player ever when I left there. He told me at times you aren't going to like me, but the thing is I am going to make you better. He told me I can't bend to get around the edge. That was something I had to work on. I worked on it every day in the summer. I was working out there running hoops, working on my bend. That was one of my best traits this season. I credit him with my success.

"I had a lot of tackles for loss my junior year, but the sacks weren't there. Last year they put me in a different position with the defense and it was awesome to be in that position and be a pure defensive end and establish my power and speed on the outside and have a lot more freedom."

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Highsmith's road the Steelers was one that came from his drive and desire to push himself no matter what obstacles stood in his way. He played at Eugene Ashley High School, which only opened in 2000, and became the first player from the school ever drafted in the NFL.

"I hope it can be motivation, inspiration for guys coming from there," said Highsmith. "It doesn't matter where you play, what school you went to, if you have the work ethic and are a dog on the field, you can do it. The ceiling is sky high. It's so humbling to know I am the first player from my high school to get drafted. I hope it can be an inspiration in the future."

Highsmith went to Charlotte as a walk-on, not even in the mix when he first arrived as a student his freshman year, not yet a student-athlete.

"It's definitely a different path," said Highsmith. "I didn't even come to camp my freshman year. I came the first day of school like the other freshmen. I did the best I could to be the best every day. I played scout team my redshirt year. I played special teams my first two years. I didn't start to roll until my junior year.

"For any walk-ons out there just really fall in love with the process. Do what you can day to day and do the little things right. Outwork everyone. Be the first to arrive, the last to leave. Be a low maintenance guy. Don't cause any trouble. Work harder than anyone in the room."

That approach, that attitude, caught the attention of the Steelers scouting department last season. But it really set in when they saw him at the East-West Shrine Bowl game and then later at the NFL Scouting Combine.

"That is where I stood out," said Highsmith. "That was the first step in the process. In the drills I would go first, lead the guys, be the best I could be in that group. The first conversation I had with them was a few weeks after the Combine, I spoke with Coach (Mike) Tomlin and Kevin Colbert and I knew they had an interest. It was very different because it was a virtual visit with them. Coach Healy texted me and said you should be shown around facilities right now, not doing Skype interviews. It's crazy. It was still awesome. To be in the position I am and have those calls was awesome."

Another call that was awesome was the one he received telling him the Steelers were drafting him.

"Before the draft we talked and that was one of the teams I wanted to go to," said Highsmith. "It was getting around that time. I was getting a little nervous. Toward the end of the third round I couldn't sit still. I have a Fitbit and my heart rate was going up a little bit. My mom was the same way. She couldn't sit still. It was around pick 100 that I knew Pittsburgh was coming up. Some of my teammates, roommates are Steelers fans and I had them on a zoom call. They were like, man 102 is coming up. I didn't expect to get the call yet, but it came up a few early and I saw it was from Pennsylvania. I told everyone to be quiet. Then Coach Tomlin, Mr. Colbert, Mr. (Art) Rooney, the defensive coordinator Keith Butler got on the phone. It was an amazing night. A night I will never forget. It still doesn't seem real.

"I know how good this organization is and what this fan base is all about. It was hard waiting, but it was the team I wanted. I am so glad they picked me. I just want people to know I am going to come in and do whatever I can, work as hard as I can to help this team get the seventh Super Bowl ring. It is so awesome. That call and everything. That is a night I will never forget."

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