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A third-year sophomore, Hightower has deflected questions about whether he’ll explore entering the NFL draft. Saban is already looking ahead to 2011 for the 6-foot-4, 258-pounder, though.

“I think that he’ll be even better next year because I think he’s gotten more and more confident and better condition,” the coach said. “I think he understands his role on the team much, much better now. I think his future’s very bright.”

Hightower also lines up at the line with his hands on the ground at times, and does well enough that lineman Marcell Dareus calls him “a nice little defensive end at heart.”

Hightower was one of the few veterans of a defense with nine new starters and freshmen like linebacker C.J. Mosley and cornerback DeMarcus Milliner holding down starting roles. Dareus noticed Hightower’s improvement as the season went along.

“You look back and see how he matured and what he played through, how he had to go through adversity _ his performance changed dramatically,” Dareus said.