Coming off a 2008 campaign that saw him start 12 of 14 games for Alabama at the weakside linebacker spot and earn first team Freshman All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America, Hightower appeared to be headed for bigger and better things his sophomore year, but saw his college career hit a major roadblock in 2009 when he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the fourth game of the season.
Amazingly, Hightower healed quickly enough to participate in spring practice and actually saw his responsibilities grow after junior linebacker Renaldo McClain declared for the NFL draft.
Along with playing both the middle and weakside linebacker spots, Hightower calls out the signals for the Crimson Tide defense and will line up at defensive end when the opposition is in an obvious passing situation. Hightower is also fast and athletic enough to cover opposing tight ends despite packing 258 pounds on his 6-foot-4 frame.
Although he was forced to sit out the last 10 games of Alabama's national championship run in 2009, Hightower relishes being placed in a leadership role and is proud to be a part of the Crimson Tide's return to national prominence.
"I feel very comfortable with calling out the signals. After Renaldo announced and went pro, I knew that I would be asked to fill that role," said Hightower. "Helping to get Alabama back on top means a lot to me, that's why I came here. I feel like if we keep focusing we'll continue to get better."
After recording six tackles, including 1.5 for loss, in Alabama's 41-10 road victory over archrival Tennessee on Saturday, Hightower ranks second on the team in tackles with 42 and leads the Crimson Tide in quarterback hurries with seven.
"Dont'a is doing a great job. He's really coming along and has gotten better and better throughout the season," said Alabama coach Nick Saban, following his team's win over the Vols. "He's been an inspiration for the other players and has grown as a leader calling out the defensive signals for us."
Despite being among the statistical leaders on a unit that ranks third in the country in scoring defense, Hightower admitted that he had to shake off some rust early on this season, but believes things have started to click for him the last four games and was excited to play in his home state on Saturday.
"I think at the beginning of the season that I wanted to make plays, but I wasn't able to do some of the things that I'm normally capable of doing. I've started to feel more comfortable though the last few games beginning with Florida," said Hightower. "I wanted to come back to Tennessee because the Alabama/Tennessee game is a big rivalry game. We knew they were going to come out and play hard so we just had to have the mental focus to match their intensity."
With three games against nationally ranked teams still left on their regular season schedule, Hightower and his Crimson Tide teammates still have a chance to earn a second straight berth in the BCS title game if they can run the table and win the SEC championship game.