Proud of one of his stars

You could hear it in Will Healy's voice. It was something the Charlotte 49ers head football coach couldn't hide and didn't want to hide.

It's because when talking about Alex Highsmith, Healy just can't help but let it be known how proud he is of the newest Steelers linebacker. 

"I am ridiculously proud," said Healy. "He's a guy I have grown really close to over the last year. I was fortunate enough to inherit him and coach him. It couldn't happen to a better person.

"The amazing part about Alex is not just the way he is on the field, but his leadership and how he handled his business and mentorship is so vital for our program well after he is there. He is a tremendous person. He has it figured out. He is very mature about how he handles himself. He is such a good teammate and person. His work ethic is second to none.

"To see him enjoy this type of success is really good for the guys who are in our program to see what a professional player looks like. It's really gratifying for me as a coach to see a guy who buys into it as much as he does, and I am so happy he was rewarded this way."

Highsmith has come a long way since he first went to Charlotte, showing up as a walk-on and not even participating in freshman camp because he wasn't on the roster. To go from that to a third-round draft pick at a smaller school is a huge jump.

"There is some God-given ability he has so the first thing for him was someone to give him a chance," said Healy. "He bought into the process of what it's going to take from where he was to where he has to go. He caught the hunger and fire of what it takes to be special and do it week in and week out. It's a process, but when you do things right like he does, and do it consistently, you are bound to have results. That, with the God-given ability, is why he turned out to be so special.

"I think it's such a great match him going to the Steelers. I don't know Mike Tomlin, but I know of Mike Tomlin. I know what the Steelers motto has been for a long time, what they have been known for. It's Alex Highsmith. People who love the game of football. People who are physical. People who are durable. People who are great teammates. It's about the organization and not the individual. That is Alex. Whatever you ask him to do, he will do it exactly like you ask him to do it. He will be great on special teams. That will give him the ability to work his way into the defense while he is learning and creating some consistency. He still has some growth. He will do everything you ask him to do for the team. The guys in the locker room will love him. He will outwork anybody.

"He is relentless. When you go back and look at it, I bet he played more snaps than any defensive end in college football last year. He would play 70-75 snaps rushing the passer. He gave you everything he had for every snap. There is a will to win and be successful he has that I haven't seen in many others. He gave us everything he had."

Highsmith credited Healy, along with co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach Marcus West with helping his growth his senior season, which led to a breakout year that included 15 sacks. It wasn't a knock at the coaches he had before that, it was just the approach West took that elevated his play. 

"He was coached by some really good guys before we got here," said Healy. "I do feel really good about Marcus West. He coached a lot of guys who have been drafted and played in the National Football League, especially at the defensive end position. Marcus gave Alex some tools he could use and add to his repertoire. Defensively we were different schematically than what they were the year before which gave him more of an opportunity to rush the passer, which helped his statistics rise as fast as they did. Everything Alex had as a foundation and the things he became self-made for were here well before we got here. 

"He played in a lot of different defenses. He is very smart. Having a fifth-year senior who is willing to work at a new position says a lot about him too."

Healy might have only been Highsmith's coach for one year, but it was definitely long enough to know that he is going to continue to be successful at the next level, and wants him to have nothing but confidence in himself as he takes that step.

"I think Alex is hungry having come along the path he has over the last five years," said Healy. "To walk-on to a third-round pick, that happened fast. He belongs in that locker room, in that league and on the field. He has to continue to remember that, that he can do this. Everything he does, if he continues to stay on the path he is on, he is going to be successful. He is a special person and will bring a lot to that organization."

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