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Alabama linebacker Hightower's pedigree boosts draft status

INDIANAPOLIS — The game within a game has a relatively simple formula.

Points are awarded for tackles, interceptions and forced fumbles, among other things. They are taken away for blown assignments and missed opportunities.

By the end of a championship season, Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower had amassed more points than any of his teammates. Considering how dominant of a defense Alabama fielded in 2011, that's like grading better than classmates in a particle physics course at MIT.

"We all compete, and that's another reason why we came to Alabama and the SEC — to compete against some of the best athletes in the country," Hightower said at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Hightower's transcendent play in the crucible of SEC competition puts him on a short list of players who are likely to make an immediate impact in the NFL. He is of particular interest to the Steelers given their need at inside linebacker — the team may part ways with 15th-year veteran James Farrior — and the reality of this year's draft.

"It's not a real deep group at inside 'backer," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said.

Hightower, who interviewed with the Steelers at the Combine, appears to be a Steelers inside linebacker straight out of central casting.

He is 6-foot-2, 265 pounds, and he is best suited for a 3-4 defense given his ability to take on and shed blockers.

Hightower led the Crimson Tide with 85 tackles last season, including 11 for losses. The consensus All-American also recorded four sacks and eight quarterback hurries in helping Alabama win the national championship.

His versatility would add to his appeal to the Steelers, who place a premium on that quality.

"I can play both inside and outside and the defensive end in the 4-3, so it ultimately comes down to which teams need what," Hightower said, "and I feel like I have just as much ability as anyone at the Combine at either (linebacker) position."

One concern teams may have about Hightower is the torn ACL he sustained in 2009, which wiped out much of his sophomore season. Then again, Hightower answered most if not all questions about coming back from a major knee injury with the way he played the past two seasons.

His speed is still a bit of an issue — Hightower is hoping to run a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash today at the Combine to allay any concerns — but he has been working on improving that at API Institute in Arizona.

Hightower dropped about five pounds before the Combine, and he said nutrition has become a big part of his training regimen. He hopes to lose about five to 10 more in advance of the draft to further enhance his speed.

"I feel as fast as I've ever felt, even before the knee injury," Hightower said. "I feel a lot more fluid as far as my movements go, so I'm definitely moving in the right direction to get myself in the best performance ability."

He proved to be at his best last season, and on a defense for the ages.

Four players from that unit — Hightower, outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw, cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick and safety Mark Barron — are widely projected to go in the first round of the draft.

The depth and talent on that defense makes it all the more impressive that Hightower racked up more points in a season-long competition with his teammates.

There was a subjective element to the scoring, as coaches could award or deduct points based on judgment calls they made while watching film.

"But he won it fair and square," Upshaw said of Hightower, "and I'm proud to say I was in the top three with those two guys (Barron was the other). It was a fun competition."

Top of the class

Here are NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock's top five linebackers in the draft. Mayock ranked them before the NFL Scouting Combine, so they will likely change:

Rank, Player, College, Ht./Wt.

1. Courtney Upshaw, Alabama, 6- 1272

2. Luke Kuechly, Boston College, 6-3/242

3. Dont'a Hightower, Alabama, 6-2/265

4. Ronnell Lewis, Oklahoma, 6-2/253

5. Sean Spence, Miami (Fla.), 5-1 1231

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