Rookie running back Tim Hightower takes a handoff during an organized team activity Wednesday at the Cards' Tempe complex.
These are the things Tim Hightower isn't: He isn't a high draft pick. He isn't from a big school. He isn't one of those running backs blessed with track speed.
These are the things Tim Hightower is: He is a player who gained nearly 2,000 yards rushing as a senior, with 20 touchdowns. He is built (6-foot, 224 pounds) to be an every-down back. He is someone whose style echoes that of Pro Bowler Marion Barber.
Most importantly, in a year where the Cardinals needed to add a running back in the draft, he is the only running back they added.
It leaves Hightower with a certain amount of expectations – expectations that may be slightly higher than most fifth-round draft picks.
"It's fair," Hightower said after an organized team activity this week. "There are expectations from the team for me to contribute early, and regardless of the fans' expectations, I don't care if I was (taken in) the first round or the seventh round, my mindset wouldn't be any different.
"Whether I like it or not, that's the reality."
The man wasn't even invited to the scouting combine, where the top 300-plus draft eligible players go. In truth, Hightower isn't even a lock to make the final roster, something that would be a given for a back taken in the first couple of rounds.
But there is a pervasive feeling that Hightower has a chance to make an impact at some point for the Cardinals at running back. There is a need, with starter Edgerrin James turning 30 at the beginning of training camp and questions about the long-term viability of backups Marcel Shipp and J.J. Arrington, to find a young back for the future.
The Cards hope it can be their second-day pick from Richmond.
"I don't think there is any undue pressure," running backs coach Maurice Carthon said. "Look at the guys around him. You got guys like Marcel Shipp and Edgerrin James. Shipp was a guy no one thought would do anything, he came in and proved himself. A guy like Shipp is great for Tim to look at and see what can be done."
Carthon believes Hightower will benefit from not being a combine invitee and not being one of the highly touted backs coming into the draft. Those things become motivators for Hightower, who said his biggest problem going without a combine invite was missing a chance "to compete against the best."
But Hightower is also competing for playing time against veterans who already know what they are doing. Shipp chuckles when asked about the old adage that a running back has the easiest time coming in and playing as a rookie; he recalled that "I almost got Jake (Plummer) killed" early in Shipp's career with a missed block because Shipp wasn't quite ready for the speed of the NFL game.
That's one of the talents Hightower must hone before he begins moving up the depth chart.
"It keeps me extra focused when someone comes in and tries to push you out of the way, take your job," Shipp said. "It's all competition at the end of the day."
Hightower acknowledges his steep learning curve. But he has a quiet confidence; ask him about his lack of speed and he talks about the difference between timed speed and football speed, insisting he didn't get caught from behind last season.
Still, Hightower is only a few practices into his NFL career. He hasn't worn pads yet. The question will linger for a while – as the Cards search for a solid NFL running back, is that something Hightower is? Or isn't?
"He's got so much to learn," James said, "you can't tell yet."
Contact Darren Urban at firstname.lastname@example.org. Posted 5/21/08.