Alex Highsmith came out of Eugene Ashley High School in Wilmington, North Carolina without a single full scholarship offer. Four years later, and he is now on the verge of being selected in the NFL Draft. The defensive end has had an unlikely rise to stardom, but for him, there is always a bigger goal to reach.
Highsmith chose to walk on to UNC Charlotte out of high school. The school is only three hours away from Wilmington, allowing him to stay close to his family while playing for the 49ers. It did not take him long to prove his worth at Charlotte, though. He was given a scholarship after an impressive red-shirt freshman season.
“One of the best days of my life,” Highsmith told Pride of Detroit about the day he was rewarded with a scholarship. “Coach called me to his office the day I was going home [for summer break], and he told me the news. It was awesome. I looked up to the sky and said, ‘Thank you, Jesus.’”
The defensive end was prepared to go back to Wilmington for the summer. He was planning on getting a job to help his family afford to pay his tuition for the following school year. When he arrived home, he let them know they no longer had to worry about that. It turned out to be a huge day for the family, with his sister earning an academic scholarship to UNC-Chapel Hill on the same day.
This was just another stepping stone for Highsmith, though. His goals were always larger than just playing college football.
“This wasn’t an end goal, just something that was gonna springboard me to doing even better,” he said.
Football had always been a huge part of his life. Highsmith grew up playing a multitude of sports, but football was always the most important to him and is the one that has stuck with him the longest.
“I started playing football when I was about five years old. Started in flag and then played Pop Warner, Mighty Mights and all the tackle leagues,” he said. “I played baseball, basketball — but football has always been my love, and my greatest sport.”
Highsmith grew up a fan of his local Carolina Panthers. He idolized the likes of Steve Smith and Julius Peppers, hoping that he would one day be able to play of the same fields they did. Now he has a chance to.
The defensive end took full advantage of the opportunity he was given at Charlotte. After sitting out in his first year, he played his way into a scholarship when he finally got a chance to take the field. He played as a part of the team’s defensive line rotation, but stuck out enough in the ensuing spring camp to earn a starting role in his junior season.
In 2018, he got his first real chance to stand out on the main stage of NCAA Football. The 49ers made a trip to Knoxville to play the blue-blood Tennessee Volunteers at the legendary Neyland Stadium. He saw his chance, and took advantage of it.
Charlotte’s defense was almost unbreakable on that day. The 49ers defense only allowed one scoring drive despite being heavily outmatched by their opponents on paper. Highsmith was a crucial part of that defensive effort, notching four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. The 49ers ended up losing the game 14-3—the Vols also scored a punt return touchdown—but it was a great day for the young pass rusher.
Highsmith got a chance to shine on an even larger stage in 2019. Charlotte traveled down to Death Valley to take on the No. 1 ranked Clemson Tigers in what was the biggest game of his career.
“It was really cool just to play in that environment,” he said. “It was an awesome experience going to Death Valley and playing in front of that many people.”
Despite the excitement and fanfare, in the end, he treated this game just like every other.
“We know how many weapons they had, so we had to really be detailed and focused at practice,” he said of the 49ers preparation.
Clemson made quick work of Charlotte, winning the game 52-10. The loss would send the 49ers on a four-game losing streak that looked like it was going to end their season. Charlotte, and Highsmith, would get things together though. After a 2-5, start they reeled off five straight wins to reach a 7-5 record. The defensive end also managed to play his way from the fringes of draft big boards to being firmly considered at Day 3, maybe even Day 2, selection
The seven wins was the most in program history—as the college had suspended its team for 65 years before returning in 2013. It was also their first time reaching bowl eligibility in program history. They will be slated to play against the Buffalo Bulls in the Bahamas Bowl on December 20.
“It feels awesome. So many guys put in so much work into this season,” Highsmith said. “In the offseason we grinded so hard. It’s awesome to see all that hard work finally pay off. There’s a whole new excitement to this program. Things are only going to get better from here on out. It’s awesome that I was a part of the first team to go to a bowl game.”
Like everything else, just making it to the game is not good enough for Highsmith, the mission goes further than just that.
“Our goal isn't to just go to a bowl game, it’s to win a bowl game,” he said, confidently.
After the game in Bahamas, Highsmith will turn his attention towards the pros. The defensive end will be going through the pro day, and maybe the NFL combine, to try to impress scouts league-wide. An invitation to the East-West Shrine Game may also be in order for him.
Hundreds of scouting reports will be written about him over the next few months. Countless scouts and media members will have their own opinions of Highsmith’s game, but he has an idea of what his best talent is.
“My motor, my effort,” he cited as his most valuable asset. “I do have good skills with pass rushing and working moves, but I think one thing that separates me is my motor... I think scouts will say that I’m always running to the ball and always around the ball. I think that’s something that will make me stand out compared to other guys at my position.”
Highsmith’s high motor, combined with his immense talent defending the run, would make him a perfect fit on Matt Patricia’s Detroit Lions. While he may not have the athletic profile typical of a top edge rushing prospect (6-foot-4, but just 242 pounds), his dexterity and work ethic make up for those deficiencies, and then some.
While his technique could always use some work as well, he has shown in the past that he his always willing to learn, adjust and succeed when his teams need him to. If there is anything we have learned over the past few years about what Patricia is looking for from his defensive players, it is exactly that.