It was symbolic that Dont’a Hightower was the New England Patriots’ first non-captain to speak to the media this offseason at Gillette Stadium.
Hightower was forced to take on a leadership role when Jerod Mayo went down with a torn pectoral muscle in 2013, and while his first few weeks without Mayo were shaky, he came on strong at the end of the year.
Hightower believes he can take on a second-tier leadership role for the Patriots in 2014.
“It’s gonna be easier this time,” Hightower said Thursday at Gillette Stadium. “I kind of got thrown in the fire there with the injuries and stuff, and I’m a lot more comfortable with it now. From this point on, through workouts and film, or whatever, just talking to some of the younger guys, I can definitely feel like I’m starting to be able to be looked at as maybe the next leader, besides Vince (Wilfork) and Devin (McCourty) and Mayo and all those older guys.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick put a lot on Hightower’s plate last season after Mayo went down. Hightower was forced to become the “quarterback” on defense, wearing the communication-device helmet. Hightower also was forced to drop into coverage more and take on a bigger bulk of snaps. He became one of the defense’s best players by the end of the year.
“I think I just finally got comfortable,” Hightower said. “I wasn’t asked to do that my first year. And then, to lose a lot of leadership on the team, I haven’t been asked to do anything like that since college. At first, it was a little shaky, a little nervous. All the guys were still behind me, and they talked me through it and eventually I started playing better, then I feel like we all started playing better.”
Hightower might be forced into another role in 2014 with Mayo back from injury and Brandon Spikes gone after signing with the Buffalo Bills in free agency. But Hightower is ready to adapt in his third year in the NFL.
“I feel like I know what to expect,” Hightower said. “I know what Tuesday workouts are, Thursday workouts are, how the week goes during the season, preseason, playoffs, all that stuff. I definitely, definitely feel like I’m a lot more comfortable than I was going in.”
Hightower said he’s going to train in Arizona during the summer after minicamp to make sure he comes back to Foxboro for training camp in peak physical condition. Hightower made strides in his second year with the Patriots, and now he’s ready to break out in 2014.