The senior was selected as a preseason All-American by The Sports News and Lindy’s Sports.
The former Tiger is no stranger to the spotlight having been named by the American Football Coaches Association to its 2013 Division III Coaches’ All-American Team as a junior. He also was named as a first team USA South All-Conference selection, All-South Region honors as well as AFCA and D3football.com All American.
“I wouldn’t say being named as a preseason All-American is really pressure,” he said. “I like it. It gives me motivation, something that I can use to help me step up my game.”
Hightower likes the recognition for his team and the challenge it represents to live up to those expectations. “This is the first preseason honor I’ve received and it’s something special even though I was named an All-American last year,” he said.
Hightower isn’t the only senior member of the Fighting Scotts to receive special recognition. Dalton Stephens, a native of Melbourne, Fla., also is a preseason All-American.
Hightower said it’s the overall performance by the team’s line that brought his accolade and he said the whole group deserves the credit.
“Even though I’m named,” he said, “the honor shows how good our offensive group was last year. Without those guys I wouldn’t have been named.”
According to the Maryville College sports information department, in 745 snaps as a guard, Hightower graded out at 89 percent with 18 knockdowns and 20 cuts. Maryville College’s offensive line allowed three sacks in 11 games, tops in the nation, and allowed just four tackles for loss per game, fifth nationally.
Maryville’s 287.9 rushing yards per game ranked eighth in Division III. The offense ranked ninth in third-down conversion rate and 15th in red zone offense. The team finished 20th nationally in total offense with 473 yards per game and 21st in scoring offense with 39.3 points per game.
Hightower wants the line to turn in another stellar year and he believes it must work hard to make that come true.
“We’re looking forward to the season,” he said. “We lost a couple of guys last year. It is something to look forward to, bringing those guys along, getting them to learn to go with the flow.”
He said the pieces look in place.
“We’ll be all right,” Hightower said. “We have a solid freshman and a senior who has missed time when he tore his ACL and is coming back. We have enough talent and experience that we should be fine.”
The former Tiger sees his role as also providing leadership to help his teammates keep up the line’s tradition.
The Fighting Scots went 8-3 last year and 6-2 in the conference, winning their second consecutive USA South Athletic Conference title and the program’s first trip to the NCAA postseason.
Hightower said the team is focused on playing hard and capping off this season with another playoff appearance.
“We really want to get back to that first playoff game,” he said. “We feel like we’ve been to that atmosphere and know what it takes to win there. We want to get back to that game. We had a fairly young team last year and we’re bringing back a lot of guys and should be able to get back, with the talent and experience that we have.”
Hightower said he has enjoyed playing at Maryville.
“It’s everything I was looking for in a college,” he said. “I wanted a small-town feeling where I could stand out. It’s kind of like Adairsville. Everyone knows everyone. If you have a bad game, you’re always running into coaches, teachers and just anybody to tell you what you need to do to improve your game.”
He said Maryville has a small-town atmosphere in other ways, too.
“I’m running into people who know me all the time,” he said. “In downtown Maryville you see former alumni from the school who live in area and attend our games. When I go out to eat, I run into alumni who know who I am and it’s just a great feeling.”
Hightower, who has just one season left as a player, said he exceeded his own expectations in terms of playing time his first three years at the college.
“In high school I only played some my junior year and started my senior year,” he recalled. “I didn’t expect to have much playing time my freshman year at Maryville but then there were injuries and I started my second game and I’ve been starting ever since.
“I’ve had the pressure of being a starter on me since I was a freshman. It’s made me grow up as a player and as a person.”
Maryville also is close enough that his Adairsville “family” is nearby, from his immediate family to former coaches.
“Coach Jonathan Cudd has come up and had lunch with me,” he said. “Eric Bishop, head coach of the Adairsville Tigers, is in contact with me all the time.”
He said the Adairsville coaches helped him become successful.
“I’ve also got to credit Steve Sparks, the coach at Adairsville who pulled me aside one day and told me the line was my future. He gave me my shot in high school.”
He said Sparks now coaches at Dalton High.
Hightower said he’s also learned along the way that playing football is its own reward. “If we’re winning and I received no award, football is still worth it. It’s still everything I hoped for and worked for through the years.”