With just over two minutes left in the game against Florida, and the Gators about to try an onside kick, Eduardo Clements looked up and “saw guys staring blankly” at the play card coach Al Golden was showing them.
A.J. Highsmith wasn’t one of them.
While Clements, a senior who had never been on the “hands team” that deals with those kicks, was convincing Golden to put him on the field, fellow savvy senior Highsmith was moments away from making one of the biggest plays of his career.
Gators kicker Austin Hardin booted the 15-yard bouncer and Highsmith smothered the ball, refusing to budge while UF players were trying to strip it away.
“What could be more valuable than what he did on the hands team last week?” Golden said Monday of Highsmith. “It’s not just what you guys see in the outcome, it’s what happens in the huddle beforehand and the poise and the presence and intelligence he has; and to be able to adapt in the huddle and say, ‘OK, guys. Here’s what we have to do.’ It’s not like you see a lot of onside kicks from Florida.
“It was great to see Alonzo step up and do what he did.”
Highsmith, who started his UM career in 2009 as a backup quarterback and switched to safety in 2011, is more than the heart of the 16th-ranked Hurricanes (2-0). He’s one of the brains, too.
Coaches and players point to his intellect on and off the field, and how he has become an unofficial player-coach of sorts, while still competing on special teams and in about 30 plays a game at safety.
“He’s one of the smartest players on defense,” Clements said. “He knows everything — every call, how to get the defense lined up. He’s in the right place at the right time every time, and he’s a guy you can rely on. Coaches are going to die with a guy like that.”
Said sophomore safety Rayshawn Jenkins: “A.J. is a great mentor. When I have questions, instead of going to coaches I go straight to him. He’s that helpful.”
Highsmith, as most know, is the son of former UM great Alonzo Highsmith, a fullback who played from 1983 (under Howard Schnellenberger) to 1986 (’84, ’85 and ’86 under Jimmy Johnson). Dad is a senior executive in the Green Bay Packers front office, and he got to attend the game Saturday.
“He’s happy to see we’re headed in the right direction,” A.J. said. “We know we haven’t arrived yet. We still have a lot of things we need to improve on.
“But I think we can be as good as we want to be.”
Highsmith has three tackles this season, including one that stopped the two-point conversion after UF’s touchdown in the first quarter. He came into 2013 with 44 tackles in 23 games as a safety, seven of them starts. He also has a forced fumble and fumble recovery, with his only career interception last year against North Carolina State.
Golden said the top of his hands team sheet reads “reliable, trustworthy, dependable, think-on-your-feet kind of guy. So, A.J. is out there because he’s all of that.”
Highsmith, who finds it funny that Golden calls him Alonzo, said the Florida game was the first time the hands team faced the situation for which they have prepared for months.
“Honestly, I was so focused on the ball that I wasn’t worried about anything else,” Highsmith said. “I was locked into the moment.
“The situation should never be too big for you. It’s definitely about heart. When I was on the ground there were guys trying to rip the ball out, an old tug of war.
“I’m going to remember that Florida victory for a long time.”
He said he still hopes to play in the NFL but is covered regardless. He has his bachelor’s degree in sports administration and will soon be receiving his master’s degree in liberal studies.
As for UM’s next FCS opponent Savannah State (1-2), one of the worst teams in college football, Highsmith said he’s only concerned with his Hurricanes winning and improving.
“It’s about pride,” he said. “They’re on the schedule for a reason. We plan on doing our best every game.”