MOSCOW, Idaho – Near the close of a Vandals practice this week, Idaho coach Paul Petrino exhorted the punt block team to go not merely through the motions but to believe in the play.
“Get lined up. Block the damn punt!” he told the players.
So, Lloyd Hightower lined up on the corner, rushed, and blocked the punt. Then he did it again.
Good experience has made Hightower a believer. His first notable play for the Vandals as a freshman was a blocked punt that he recovered and returned for a touchdown against Georgia State. Last season, as a junior, he scooped up another block and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown against Portland State, Idaho’s opponent on Saturday.
“That play was 95 percent, no, 99 percent, everybody else. I just picked up the ball and got some blocks,” Hightower said of his score against the Vikings.
His prowess on special teams has allowed Hightower to play on all four kicking teams over his career, in addition to developing into the closest thing Idaho has to a lock-down cornerback the past two seasons.
The Vandals’ defense gave up an average of 37.45 points per game last year. But Hightower broke up 13 passes, third best in the Big Sky Conference and eighth nationally, and totaled 44 tackles and an interception.
He is playing better as a senior, so much so that teams are declining to challenge him and instead are throwing to the other side. In Idaho’s most recent game, against Weber State, Hightower was targeted twice and broke up both passes.
Hightower is also experiencing the painful truth as a senior, being at the top of his game with an ever-diminishing number of games to play.
“He’s worked his tail off,” Petrino said. “He’s just playing real well. He’s seeing things. He understands run, pass. He’s getting into passing lanes. He is playing with good leverage and tackling well.
“It is good to see a guy who is a hard worker, who cares that much have so much improvement. I’m happy for him.”
The Vandals (2-4, 0-2 in the Big Sky) cannot afford another loss if they hope to achieve a goal of qualifying for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs. With the exception of Hightower’s freshman year, when the Vandals capped a 9-4 season with a 61-50 victory over Colorado State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, this has been the Vandals’ fate.
Idaho during Hightower’s career has been struggling for wins. The same is true in 2019, but the Vandals are assured six more regular-season games, and Hightower is committed to making the most of them.
As a junior, Hightower added about 10 pounds to get close to 190 so he could deliver bigger hits and make receivers work harder to run patterns. He is still heavier than he was as a sophomore but has dropped a few pounds.
“I’m in better shape than last year,” he said.
Hightower can run with nearly any receiver in the Big Sky. He can jump with them, and he is light on his feet to get good position to cover them.
Add to that the insights he has acquired with experience. On one of his pass breakups against Weber State, Hightower noticed the receiver he was covering, after jogging through a couple of plays, had his head down and was running.
“Here we go, he’s running a route,” Hightower said he thought, and he tipped away a pass in the end zone.
“This year, I’m picking up different keys,” he said.
He knows receivers will regularly try to set him up with a double move, faking inside before breaking outside or vice versa.
“I’m noticing tendencies in alignments,” he said. “I’m playing with more football intelligence. Hopefully, I can pass that on to the young guys.”
When he was an underclassman, Hightower learned from older teammates like D.J. Hampton and Kendrick Trotter. He said Hampton “made some crazy plays on special teams,” and he hopes he can relay his own experience and his example for hard work to Idaho’s young defensive backs. He still stays in regular contact with Trotter.
“(Trotter) called me before the Wyoming game, and he texted me before the Weber State game,” he said.
In both instances, Hightower said, Trotter urged him to trust his instincts, to believe what he was seeing on the field.
Getting to that point has been the product of years of effort. Hightower originally came to the Vandals as a standout high school wide receiver from Temecula, California, and as a freshman he learned to play receiver and cornerback.
“I still feel like I’ve got the best hands on the team,” he said.
His proficiency as a returner and punt blocker first got Hightower on the field for the Vandals. Those are roles he still embraces as a senior, especially being able to make a dramatic difference in a game with a blocked punt.
“That sound, the thump you hear with a block. I love that sound,” he said. “I could go to sleep listening to that sound.”
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