Tim Hightower’s NFL career has been a battle against bouts of fumblitis. The running back who spent the past three years with the Arizona Cardinals developed a reputation as a guy who couldn’t hold on to the ball.
Now with the Redskins, Hightower doesn’t consider it a touchy subject — but he’s not worrying about it too much, either.
“You go 110 mph, and you just play football. That’s when you succeed,” Hightower said. “From a running back’s perspective, it’s easy to say, ‘You got to think about ball security.’ But as soon as you focus on that, your brain can’t focus on three things at one time. You can’t focus on ball security and run and cut and do all those things. That has to be a feeling thing, an instinctual thing.”
Hightower, acquired from Arizona to be the Redskins’ backup, is getting a chance with Ryan Torain’s broken hand to prove he can handle the bulk of the carries and be a reliable runner.
In 48 games, Hightower has 12 fumbles — or about one every 37 carries. During this training camp, he has fumbled five out of the six days he has practiced with his new team. Coach Mike Shanahan blames handoffs for part of that but concedes it’s an issue.
“We hand the ball off a little bit differently, and he runs quite hard,” Shanahan said Tuesday. “But we just keep on practicing it, people try and strip the ball and hopefully eliminate that problem.”
According to Shanahan, preseason games — including Friday’s opener at FedEx Field against the Pittsburgh Steelers - is a better way to evaluate running backs than drills on the practice field. And with Torain out, Hightower is first on the depth chart going into the first game action of the year.
Torain has the kind of vision the Redskins value, and Hightower seems a logical fit to slide in as a third-down back. But the 25-year-old Alexandria native, who played at the University of Richmond, isn’t satisfied with that niche role.
“Oh my gosh, third-down back? I’ve got to be whatever I got to be, man. I can’t put myself in a box,” Hightower said. “Whatever the team needs me to do - first down, second down, third down — I got to be ready to do everything, so I can’t come in narrow-minded.”
Getting practice time with the first team at Redskins Park in Ashburn, Hightower is becoming more comfortable in a new offense while also going about the process of learning plays. Teammates see him as one half of what they hope is a dynamic duo in the backfield.
“I love the way he runs — fast and powerful,” offensive tackle Trent Williams said. “He’s going to be hard to tackle one-on-one, kind of like Torain. I just think they complement each other real well.”
Torain’s injury has opened the door, though Hightower insisted he can’t wait until Torain is back. For now, the spotlight is on him - and more so about his fumbles than about how Hightower has never missed a regular-season game with injury.
That’s OK with Hightower, who won’t let himself think about where his career would be if not for those mistakes. Instead, he considers it a dose of adversity.
“It’s taught me how to respond, it’s taught me how to overcome things, it’s taught me how to stay focused. It’s great when things are going well and you have 100 yards a game, but when you put the ball on the ground and you feel like you let the team down, how do you respond now?” Hightower said. “This is a great opportunity for me to respond - a fresh start and to get things off on the right track.”
He’s getting it with the Redskins after a July 31 trade that sent defensive lineman Vonnie Holliday and a sixth-round pick to the Cardinals. Hightower cited “greater powers that be” for the trade and said he doesn’t make those calls. But Arizona decided to rely on oft-injured Beanie Wells and others instead of the man who started 13 games last season.
“I have no idea why they’d give up on a guy like that,” offensive lineman Kory Lichtensteiger said.
Even with Torain in the fold after an impressive year, the Redskins saw something in Hightower to take a chance on him. Now he’s eager not to let this opportunity to slip through his fingers.