College Sports

Alex Highsmith walked on to the Charlotte 49ers. Now he’s a star. Is the NFL next?

Alex Highsmith was packed and ready to go home for the summer when he was summoned to the Charlotte 49ers’ football offices.

It was May 2017, and Highsmith, a walk-on defensive end, had completed what he thought was a successful spring practice season. But while most of his teammates who were on scholarship would remain in Charlotte in summer school, Highsmith was instead returning to his hometown of Wilmington, to a job delivering furniture for a local store.

But first, he needed to see what then-49ers coach Brad Lambert wanted.

Actually, Highsmith thought he might know: He had displayed plenty of promise as a redshirt freshman in 2016, playing in 12 games (starting one), making 17 tackles and sacking the quarterback once.

“I was hoping,” Highsmith said.

Lambert’s message justified that hope: Highsmith had earned a full scholarship.

“I looked up to the sky and said, ‘Thank you, Jesus,’” Highsmith said. “It was one day I’ll never forget.”

Now preparing for his senior season — which begins Aug. 29 when the 49ers host Gardner-Webb — Highsmith has proven himself more than worthy of that scholarship.

As a junior last season, Highsmith was the country’s highest-graded edge defender in run defense (90.6), according to Pro Football Focus. His 17.5 tackles-for-loss ranked 16th nationally.

After making first-team all-Conference USA, he was named to this season’s watch list for the Bednarik Award, which goes to the best defensive player in college football. A NFL career, once a pipe dream, now is a possibility.

“What a great college football story,” said 49ers coach Will Healy, who replaced Lambert when he was fired after last season. “You talk about a guy who walked on here. Now he’s got preseason all-conference and some All-American-type hype around him.

“He lives up to it. He’s a self-made, great football player.”

So how did Highsmith start out his career as a walk-on at what was then essentially a start-up college football program? Allow Highsmith’s dad to be blunt.

“He was literally a late bloomer,” said Sam Highsmith, an elementary school principal in the Wilmington area. “And he was a little overweight and had no real speed.”

It took a while for Highsmith to truly embrace football.

“We would have to run extra gassers because of Alex,” said Nick Hancock, a childhood friend who played with Highsmith through their freshman season at Wilmington’s Ashley High.

Highsmith began to develop as a junior and was an all-conference performer his senior year. But he hadn’t gone to many summer camps earlier in his prep career, missing the attention that comes from playing well in front of college recruiters.

He also finally developed the necessary work ethic that might help him get to college. With Hancock serving as a partner and coach, Highsmith worked out constantly.

“Almost every day on the field, he was doing some kind of drill,” said Hancock, who also went to Charlotte and is now an account analyst for an insurance broker. “At that time, he was hoping to be a linebacker. So I’d look up Luke Kuechly drills and we’d do them. A lot of the workouts I had him do were probably stupid and probably didn’t help as much as they could have, but he never complained. I saw what everyone sees now.”

Still, the only offers Highsmith received were from Football Championship Subdivision programs Davidson (which doesn’t have football scholarships) and Furman (which he said came with only a partial scholarship).

But the 49ers coaching staff also had gotten some film of Highsmith. Lambert invited him to try out for the team, nothing guaranteed beyond that.

“He was just going to have to outwork everybody,” Sam Highsmith said. “We knew the stories: a walk-on is just a tackling dummy, a scout team guy. He was going to have that work-ethic mentality to get to the next level.”

All Highsmith could do was work harder than the next guy. That was the best way to have coaches notice him. And Hancock was also a student at Charlotte and their workouts continued on campus.

“I kept my head down,” Highsmith said. “I was the first in the building and the last to leave. I had to show them that way.”

To his 49ers teammates’ credit, Highsmith was treated no differently than a scholarship player.

“When we were freshmen, that (walk-on) question wasn’t really a focus,” said senior defensive end Tyriq Harris. “We always connected and bonded.”

After red-shirting in 2015, Highsmith worked his way up the ladder in 2016. He played in all 12 games as a redshirt freshman. In his one start against Texas-Sam Antonio, he had five tackles and a sack.

Scholarship in hand for his sophomore season in 2017, Highsmith had 33 tackles as a reserve, including two sacks. That set up his break-out junior year.

“He’s flourished,” said Harris. “No matter what the situation, he’s been faithful to the grind.”

Up next is Highsmith’s final season. A sculpted 6-foot-4, 242 pounds now, he’s one of the team leaders now.

“I want to have an impact on my guys in the locker room,” Highsmith said.

He’s also a film buff. He sometimes buys 10 tickets to a show and distributes them to teammates (they pay him back). He loves Marvel movies. His favorite character is the supervillain Thanos.

“You can call me that,” Highsmith said.

You can also call him a real, live college football star, validated by what happened that spring day two years ago.

“It was an amazing moment,” Highsmith said. “It was a day I’ll never forget.”

David Scott: @davidscott14