Chargers WR John Hightower is playing for more than a roster spot

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
John Hightower is trying to make his mark this season after being signed to the practice squad last year.

COSTA MESA, Calif. — John Hightower ended practice on Tuesday on a walk off 50-yard plus touchdown from quarterback Easton Stick.

Ten practices into training camp and it is no surprise that the former Boise State receiver keeps making impactful plays.

Training camp is a time for coaches and players to prepare for the NFL season. But there is always a player who might shine that makes things difficult when it comes to cut down days. 

Hightower may be that player and it isn’t even close.

The receiver has been making plays whether they are in pads or short and during 7-on-7 or 11-on-11.

“I felt like I’ve been getting better as the week go along,” Hightower said. “Just been putting in work, just trying to keep my head down and grind.”

On July 29th, Hightower lined up against cornerback Deane Leonard when quarterback Justin Herbert threw a pass his way, he swam move Leonard to put himself in a position to come down with the ball.

“I think you’re seeing John and his playmaking ability because he has real speed, real speed, and he has set up, and he has enough size that gives the quarterback a lot of things to throw to,” Chargers head coach Brandon Staley explained. “He’s off to a good start to camp.”

His speed is impressive, having posted a 4.43 at the combine, which is above average.

During 7-on-7 on July 26th, Hightower went right passed cornerback Taiwan Mullen, so Herbert threw a deep pass that Hightower caught for a touchdown while a trailing Mullen ran into safety Mark Webb. 

Hightower has become familiar with the end zone this camp.

“I feel like he can be a good receiver in this league,” fellow receiver Mike Williams said.

There has been a time or two that Hightower has pointed to his left arm when scoring. If you watch his film from Boise State he would do it almost every time he scored a touchdown. He has a tattoo that says “Long Live Slim.”

“Every single time,” he said pointing to the tattoo on his arm. “Got to every chance I get.”

The memory of Marcelle “Slim” Preston has driven Hightower ever since April 21st, 2019. That was the day Preston was shot and killed a little after midnight in Kettering, MD.

“That was my childhood best friend,” Hightower said. “Just remember him every day. Everywhere I go, he’s with me.”

They met in fourth grade and became a lethal Pop Warner quarterback/running back duo. They became brothers.

Now that Preston isn’t here, Hightower wants to honor his memory by pointing at his tattoo and then raising his finger to the sky.

“Y’all going to see it,” Hightower said.

During the scrimmage on Sunday, quarterback Stick was under duress, so Hightower began to move to get himself open. Stick threw a pass that looked like it might be too far, but he adjusted his body and made a great grab. It was called back for a penalty, but it showed good awareness.

“He came in last year and did a really good job of fitting in,” Staley said. “I think he got better as he went, got more and more comfortable.”

When Mike Williams spoke to the media last week, he mentioned that Hightower had been glued to Allen since he arrived.

“He’s in Keenan’s [Allen] ear all the time, learning new things,” Williams said.

Allen is one of the best receivers in the league, known for his route running, hip movement, and release.

“Trying to get better in every way, asking me questions about reps that he has —what I would’ve done, what he could have done better,” Allen said. “Trying to find ways to do the same moves over and over but make them look different.”

Going into his 11th season, Allen has seen many receivers come and go on the team. He sees something in 84.

“John is a guy that came in last year, and from the first moment, I told coach, ‘This guy’s got some juice,'” Allen said.

What impresses Allen about Hightower?

“His speed for sure, but it’s his change of direction for me,” Allen explained. “He’s got the juice, so to speak. He can make guys miss in a phone booth.”

It is evident that Allen thinks Hightower has the “juice” to contribute to this team even if the squad is loaded with talent with Allen, Williams, Josh Palmer, first-round draft pick Quentin Johnston and more.

If camp has been any indication, Hightower is learning. There have been about four or five instances where he is wide open and walks into the end zone. 

He is getting open and making his mark no matter which quarterback is under center.

Having come in last September gave Hightower a leg up because he was able to be in the receivers’ meetings and learn from two of the best in the NFL.

“I was just sitting back learning,” Hightower said. “Keenan and Mike were still coaching me even though they were getting ready for the game and everything and just helped me prepare for where I’m at now.”

It also allowed him to get to know Herbert and build a relationship with him primarily because it is never known when a player’s number will be called.

Last season with Allen and Williams suffering injuries, players like Michael Bandy and De’Andre Carter were asked to step up.

“I feel like we are getting the timing together now, and I just felt like we got a good gel,” he said.

It is no secret that Hightower is challenging for a spot. Jalen Guyton is on the PUP list recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last season. Also, it has taken fourth-round pick Derius Davis time to adjust.

Hightower has also contributed to special teams as a returner because of his vision and speed. If he keeps making plays, especially during preseason games, it will be hard for the Chargers to cut him.

“Speaking for us on special teams, he’s done a great job with the returner role,” special teams coach Ryan Ficken said. “He has great mechanics. Obviously, he has really good speed. He’s definitely an option at that position. We’re really pleased with where he’s at right now.”

He will continue to work to show off his talent to make the 53-man roster and continue pointing to his left arm.

“We are going to turn up this year, for sure,” Hightower said.