Boise State wide receiver John Hightower has a pretty good idea what it must feel like to be a reality TV star.
Imagine having to relive your biggest mistake nine months after the fact in front of a public audience. You’ve long since moved on, but others want to talk about your mistake all over again.
It must have felt that way for Hightower on Wednesday when he was made available to speak with the media for the first time since he was declared academically ineligible for the Broncos’ 2018 First Responder Bowl.
But Hightower isn’t letting one mistake define his career as a Bronco. Going into Friday’s Mountain West opener against Air Force at Albertsons Stadium (7 p.m., ESPN2), the 6-foot-2, 172-pound senior from Landover, Maryland, has 1,212 all-purpose yards and 11 total touchdowns in 13 career games. And he’s in good standing academically.
“He’s become a better teammate. He’s become a better leader on our team, and then because of that I think he’s experiencing success because he’s handling himself the right way,” Boise State coach Bryan Harsin said.
“You wake up in the morning and you know you’re doing things right and you know you’re taking care of business, then you can go out there and you can perform at whatever it is you want to do. It happens to be football for him, and he’s really good at it.”
Hightower’s most recent outing against Portland State included a 98-yard kickoff return, 23-yard touchdown reception and another catch of 44 yards. He’s averaging a team-best 18.8 yards per catch among Broncos with three or more receptions.
“I would say he’s the most explosive guy we have, no doubt,” receivers coach Eric Kiesau said. “There’s not a lot of guys, quite honestly, in college football that have that kind of speed.”
Hightower’s speed comes with an extra gear, a product of his days as a track athlete. While attending Hinds Community College in Raymond, Mississippi, Hightower ran the 400-meter hurdles. That race requires an all-out sprint and the ability to clear 10, 3-foot hurdles when your legs feel like Jell-O. In 2016, he finished fourth in the event at the National Junior College Athletic Association outdoor national championships.
“My summer track coach put me in the 400 hurdles. I didn’t really like hurdles starting off,” Hightower said. “I wasn’t really good at it either. But he told me that I could be good at 400 hurdles, so I just started working hard at it, perfecting my craft and eventually became good at it.”
Hightower is attacking his senior year with the same attitude — both on the field and in the classroom.
“I just learned that I just gotta keep my head in the books, do my school work so I can help my teammates out,” Hightower said.
His exceptional speed and big-play ability give him a natural advantage against defenders, and coaches hope to see him take the next step by honing his technique and route running.
“Right now he’s so fast he can just blow a guy off the line of scrimmage and not really use a lot of technique,” Kiesau said. “... Once he kind of harnesses the technique and uses the release at the line of scrimmage ... he’ll actually go from a good to a ... really, really good receiver down the road.”
Hightower’s progress over his final few months of college football will be critical to his NFL Draft prospects. He has the speed to get scouts’ attention.
“I’ve covered some fast guys, but not as fast as him,” Boise State safety Tyreque Jones said.
Boise State has a track record of success developing raw talents like Hightower. But an NFL career won’t come without hard work, and that’s something Hightower understands now more than ever.
“When you go through a rough patch and you feel like the world’s caving in on you and you’re a young man and you’re going through what he was going through academically, it can be tough,” Kiesau said. “He fought through it. ... When you break through that academic threshold or any adversity you go through, there is a little bit of a deep breath. Not that you made it, but you made the next step.
“I think that’s what you see in him. He just took a deep breath. He worked his tail off all summer to be able to be academically right for the season and it paid off. I think that’s what you see. You see him exhaling and enjoying the process.”
AIR FORCE AT NO. 20 BOISE STATE
When: 7 p.m. Friday
Where: Albertsons Stadium (36,387, FieldTurf)
TV: ESPN2 (Dave Flemming, Jim Mora, Paul Carcaterra)
Radio: KBOI 670 AM/KTIK 93.1 FM (Bob Behler, Pete Cavender)
Records: Boise State 3-0, Air Force 2-0; this is the Mountain West opener for both
Series: Boise State leads 4-3 (last meeting: Boise State won 48-38 on Oct. 27, 2018, at Air Force)
Vegas line: Boise State by 7
Weather: 65 degrees, partly cloudy, 10-20 mph wind
Note: Boise State is staging a blackout and wearing black uniforms this week.