FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Alonzo Highsmith Jr. grew up comfortable in the imposing shadow cast by his father, the former standout Miami running back and NFL veteran with the same name.
It wasn’t like he had a choice.
“I deal with that all the time, people who think they know me or think they just assume things because … people just hear the name, and the think they’ve got you figured out,” Highsmith said. “They’ve got your life planned out for you already before they even know you. I just brush it off.”
What Highsmith did choose, like his father before him, was football. And after a relatively slow introduction to the game, the Arkansas linebacker has shown an accelerated learning curve on the gridiron.
His progress has been so fast, in fact, that the Razorbacks are counting on the senior to help anchor a defense eager to prove it belongs with the Southeastern Conference’s best.
It’s a role the former junior-college standout is anxious to embrace — just as he’s anxious to add his own legacy to the name he shares with his talented father.
“In the back of my head, I’m like, ‘Well, when I’m finished, I want people to talk about me like that,’” Highsmith said. “It fuels me, but at the same time, I’ve got to wait my time.”
Highsmith’s time on the national stage began last season at Arkansas. The 6-foot-1, 230-pound outside linebacker joined the Razorbacks prior to last season after earning junior college All-American honors at Phoenix (Ariz.) College.
He quickly become one of the Arkansas’ most dependable players — starting all 13 games last season as the Razorbacks finished 11-2 and won the Cotton Bowl over Kansas State. Highsmith had 80 tackles in his first go-around in the SEC and has been named preseason second-team all-conference this season,
Arkansas defensive coordinator Paul Haynes called Highsmith’s potential “off the roof,” even though he missed spring practice after suffering a torn pectoral muscle while weight lifting.
“This fall camp is going to be important for him to make sure he gets back in the groove,” Haynes said. “It was good for him to sit out and get mental reps, watching a lot of film.”
Highsmith was lightly recruited as a 187-pound high school senior in Texas, with his only scholarship offer coming from Nicholls State (La.) before eventually ending up at Phoenix College because of his ACT and SAT scores.
He had played football since he was 10, but the majority of that had come while living with his mother, Shwayne Sesler, in Florida. It wasn’t until prior to his junior year of high school that Highsmith moved in with his father in Texas.
The life transition was made easier by the support of both of his parents. The football transition, however, was nothing short of a shock.
Highsmith had never participated in offseason conditioning in Florida, other than playing basketball and baseball. In Texas, he quickly discovered football was a yearlong commitment.
“He had great desire and wanted to be a great football player but just didn’t know how,” said Alonzo Highsmith Sr., now a senior personnel executive for the Green Bay Packers. “Where he is now as a football player, he did it all on his own from the aspect of will and determination.
“We always work hard in Texas.”
Highsmith Jr.’s determination was never more evident than while at junior college. He played at 200 pounds his first season, 210 his second. It was that second season when he caught the eye of Arkansas offensive line coach Chris Klenakis, who was in Arizona recruiting another school when he saw film and quickly started recruiting Highsmith.
Klenakis knew of Highsmith’s dad, but it was the son who drove the recruiting process — just as he chose a junior college on his own following high school.
Highsmith shares many things with his dad, most notably their name, but it’s his independent streak that brings out his father’s pride more than anything.
“He understands I don’t care about football,” Highsmith Sr. said. “My sons aren’t playing football to make a million dollars, buy me a home and take care of everyone that’s in their lives. I want them to be productive citizens, go to school, enjoy playing football and be leaders in the community one day.”
Highsmith Jr. chose Arkansas on the heels of the Razorbacks’ 10-3 campaign in 2010, a season which ended with a loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. He said his quick adaptation to his new teammates and surroundings last season was aided by his high school transfer as well as his time in junior college.
Now that the transition is behind him, Highsmith is ready to play to his full potential.
“Last year, I was just focused on what I had to and not the whole defense,” Highsmith said. “It was a narrow window. The window was so small, but now I feel like the window is wide open.
“I’m looking out a windshield when I was looking out (blinders) last year. I just feel way more comfortable.”