TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - Dont'a Hightower feels lighter, swifter and more like his old self.
The Alabama linebacker said his surgically repaired left knee is fine and his weight is down. Plus he's no longer dealing with a position switch or trying to replace Butkus Award winner Rolando McClain.
So yes, he feels better both about his own situation and a Crimson Tide defense that was still strong if not quite as consistent or dominant last season after replacing nine starters.
"I just feel like this defense is going to be back to what it needs to be," Hightower said. "Not necessarily about me making the plays or me making the big hit but more or less about me being able to push my teammates to make that extra step to beat me to the ball before I get there, to beat me to the interception. I feel very confident in this defense this year."
He says his left knee is finally "100 percent" after surgery to repair a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus four games into the 2009 season.
Hightower even shed his knee brace in time for the Capital One Bowl against Michigan State. The 6-foot-4 Hightower reported this spring at his playing weight of about 260 pounds, significantly lower than this time last year after being relegated to a stationery bike. He won't say what his weight was then.
"Dont'a has done a really good job this offseason," coach Nick Saban said. "The offseason program probably got him over the hump. About the last week and a-half of the offseason program he looked like he had the conditioning, the quickness and the movement that he had before. He looked like that a little bit during bowl practice.
"Each one of these sort of cycles that we go through he makes a little more progress."
Hightower still had a decent season, finishing second on the team with 69 tackles. But he switched back from McClain's middle linebacker spot to the weakside after four games, with sophomore Nico Johnson and freshman C.J. Mosley swapping starting assignments in the middle the rest of the season.
Fellow linebacker Courtney Upshaw - who had five sacks and forced three fumbles in the Tide's last two games - has also healed from an ankle injury that bothered him much of last season.
Johnson can certainly tell the difference in both this spring.
"It's crazy. I don't think people have seen the best Dont'a Hightower, the best Courtney, and there's a lot of other players," he said. "It's exciting to play next to them."
During the offseason, Hightower worked with team nutritionist Amy Bragg to get back to form, cutting down on fried foods and sodas and eating more fruits, vegetables and grilled chicken.
By the first day of spring, he said he felt like his instincts and quickness had returned and he was shooting through gaps with no hesitation again.
Hightower said he could tell the difference before the bowl game.
"I felt a little slimmer, I looked a little slimmer," he said. "I felt back down to game speed. My stamina was back up. I felt real good. Coming into this offseason working with (strength coach Scott) Cochran, getting in with Amy the nutritionist, I feel real good. I'm eating the right things, doing the right things. My body feels better, my knee feels better."