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Two words made an impact

"You belong."

Those two words, those two simple words, had a huge impact on linebacker Alex Highsmith.

They were the words uttered by Will Healy, his head coach at UNC-Charlotte, just before he was set to participate in the NFL Combine last year.

Those words have stayed with him and were in the back of his mind as he made his NFL debut for the Steelers in Week 1 of the 2020 season on Monday Night Football against the New York Giants.

"I remember I was at the Combine and I was a small school guy, not a Power 5 school," said Highsmith. "All these guys from the Power 5 schools were there. My head coach and strength coach from Charlotte came to visit me. My head coach, Will Healy, said two words to me before I worked out. He said, 'you belong.' I know I belong no matter where I am. That was the mindset I had going out there that night, that yes, I do belong. I felt like I had a good Combine workout after he told me that. It was just awesome.

"My first game here, Monday Night Football, once I got out there, I knew that I belonged. That is something I have known, that I belong, but hearing it mattered.

"I saw him when I came back to Charlotte this year after our season. He said the same thing. I am thankful for people like him who see that's in me and help me see that in myself."

There is no doubt Highsmith has proven he belongs, and did it from Day 1 of the 2020 season when he played without even having a preseason to get his feet wet. Highsmith was in on 10 plays on defense, giving a breather to outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, and 18 plays on special teams.  

"Before the season started, Coach (Mike) Tomlin called me and said here is what we expect of you," recalled Highsmith. "I knew I was going to be out there that first game on the field, playing special teams and backing up T.J. and Bud. It was awesome. It was a surreal feeling to run out there, and even though there were no fans, to play on Monday Night Football for my first game was awesome.

"Being able to produce, help the team, it was a fun year. COIVD kind of messed it up, but I am still thankful for everything."

The Steelers selected Highsmith in the third round of the 2020 NFL Draft, and he played in all 16 games, starting five. He finished the season with 48 tackles, including 30 solo stops, two sacks, an interception and a pass defense.

He recorded his first NFL sack Week 9 against Dallas, one week after his first career interception, which happened to come at the expense of one of the AFC's top quarterbacks in Lamar Jackson.

"It was awesome getting the first sack," said Highsmith. "There is no greater feeling in football than getting a sack in my opinion. You know you have beaten the one man in front of you. That is what it is, beating another man one-on-one and getting the sack. It's a great feeling. It's hard to describe. It's cool, but it can't last long. You have to move on to the next play when it happens. It's a short-lived feeling, but it's good. I would have never thought I would get my fist pick before my first sack. I don't think I have had an interception since Pop Warner football. It's been a long, long time since I have had an interception.

"But that first sack was awesome. I wish I could have gotten it sooner. I was close the first six or seven games, but it finally hit home against the Cowboys.

"That is what I am working on this year, just to get my body right by working on my craft and the little things it's going to take to not just get hits, but get sacks, because sacks are what matters most. It's going to take the work to get them next year."

Highsmith started the last five regular season games of the season at right outside linebacker after Dupree suffered a season ending injury against the Baltimore Ravens. In his first start against the Washington Football Team, he had five tackles, and added another five tackles two weeks later against Cincinnati. He had eight tackles in a win over the Indianapolis Colts in Week 16, and a career-high nine tackles in Week 17 against the Cleveland Browns.

"I felt like I grew throughout the season," said Highsmith. "I am far from where I want to be. No matter how well I played, or how bad I played, I can always be better. I always want to have that mindset that I had a bad game whether I had three sacks or no sacks. I want to have the mindset to get better. The more I played, especially on the defensive side of the ball, the slower the game got. That is how it's always been for me. Same thing with college. The more reps I played the slower it got. I am excited to keep growing and take that leap from year one to year two."

Take a look at photographs of Steelers LB Alex Highsmith from the 2020 season

That growth and progress came because Highsmith took the advice of many before the season, and as the season progressed.

It was simple, and once again, two simple words.

"Be prepared."

"That was the biggest thing my rookie season, to always be ready, always be prepared," said Highsmith. "Toward the end of the year when I had to step up and step in for Bud, I had to be prepared. That is the thing the Steelers organization prides ourselves on, the next man up mentality. I had to go in there and be as prepared as I could. That is what everyone does. Both T.J. and Bud gave me advice on coming in prepared. A lot of other guys told me that too. Always be prepared, especially coming in to camp. Everyone told me to come in prepared and ready for camp. That is the biggest lesson I learned – always be prepared."

And prepared he was. Highsmith earned praise from Watt for his preparation, the way he picked things up, even saying 'I know he is prepared,' when Highsmith had to step in for the injured Dupree.

"It shows people see my work," said Highsmith. "I don't want people to just hear what I talk about. I want people to see what I do with my actions. My actions are mightier than words and I just want people to see how I approach my business on a day-to-day basis." 

That was one of the toughest things for Highsmith last offseason. It was almost impossible for anyone to see how he went about things on a daily basis because of the virtual offseason. Instead of joining his fellow rookies and veterans for in-person learning, everything was virtual, which he said was the biggest challenge of his rookie year.

"It was definitely the virtual aspect of things," said Highsmith. "Not having a preseason, OTAs, and preseason workouts. I feel like I am good at learning and adapting. I am not going to let adversity affect the way that I prepare and perform. It helped me to prepare more. It was a little tough, a little bit different. Even though we did it virtually, I was still able to learn it really well. That helped me, being able to learn fast. Once we got to camp, I was able to take what I learned from those virtual meetings and apply them to my game. I tried to spend time after every meeting going over the plays, going over the film. That helped me. It's definitely tougher virtually than face to face. COVID in general was the most challenging thing."

The good news was, he had help along the way. Watt and Dupree were always available for him, answering questions, giving tips and simply providing the examples he needed.

"They were great," said Highsmith. "When I got drafted, they texted me, said welcome to the Steelers. It's great to learn from two of the best in the game. They taught me a lot. Any time I asked a question they were happy to help me. They are also two great guys, cool to be around. It was awesome to be able to have them as teammates and in the linebacker room.

"On the field I would always try to stick by them when I was on the bench, asking them what they saw so when I went in I was able to see it as well. Film study as well. I would watch film with those guys. I would watch film on my own and if I found anything I thought was interesting, I would tell them and ask if they saw this. I would try to help them be the best that they could be, and they helped me be the best that I can be."

Highsmith has already begun the journey into the 2021 season, training in the Lake Norman, N.C. area at a facility and taking care of every aspect, from physical and massage therapy to nutrition.

"I feel good," said Highsmith. "I am excited about continuing this process and keep on working. I want to get stronger and faster. I want to gain a few pounds, but not too much. Mainly get stronger and faster. For me, I have to do what I can day in and day out to be the best I can be. I have to be stronger and faster to be more productive and that is the goal for me over the next couple of months."