Lambert, now defensive coordinator at Wake Forest, said the decision to put the young pass rusher on scholarship was a no-brainer.
"That was an easy one for me," Lambert said. "He's such a hard worker. We just wanted to reward him. He was one of the better players on our team and he earned it and deserved it. It was a pretty cool moment for me to bring a guy in and give him a scholarship. I know how appreciative he was of it and how hard he had worked to earn it. He's such a hard worker and such a great guy, that was an easy one."
But it didn't happen for everyone.
Charlotte had a number of young hopefuls on its roster, so many, in fact, they had to have their own locker room because the upstart program didn't have enough space in its main locker room to fit them all.
"He was so unknown," Lambert recalled. "We let him walk on the team and we didn't really know. We were like, 'OK, we'll see what he can do.' He just made himself into a player. We transitioned him down and I think it was the last game before that spring, the guy in front of him had gotten hurt. We went to UTSA and he got to start that game and just played unbelievable for us. That was kind of the culmination of it all.
"To see what he did and how he changed not only his body, but how he approached the game, he really did a phenomenal job. He and I laugh all the time, because out of that group of walk-ons, he was really the only who made it out, and he's in the NFL. We were a startup program. At the time, our locker room wasn't big enough for everybody, so I had to put all of the walk-ons in another locker room. I tell him all the time, 'You're the only guy that made it out of there.' It's kind of crazy, now look at him. It's just a testament to who he is, his family and how hard he worked."
Lambert didn't get an opportunity to see how it all worked out in person. He wasn't retained as head coach after the 2018 season. But he has continued to keep a close eye on Highsmith and stayed in touch. In fact, in subsequent coaching stops at Marshall, Purdue and now Wake Forest, he uses Highsmith as an example to his players of what can happen when a player works hard.