FOXBORO, Mass. — Something clicked for Dont’a Hightower near the end of his tumultuous 2013 season, and the New England Patriots linebacker was able to have fun again. Now, Hightower’s trying to carry over what he learned last season to have an even better time this season.
The third-year linebacker was forced to take over more responsibility when Jerod Mayo’s season ended after tearing his pectoral muscle, and Hightower struggled to keep up. After being benched for the second half of the Patriots’ Week 12 win over the Denver Broncos, Hightower came back a different, much improved player.
“The thing that I want to work on probably the most is just having a lot more fun,” Hightower said Thursday after organized team activities. “Those last couple games of the season, whenever I got a lot more comfortable and relaxed, I was just having fun, and I played a lot better. So going out, playing stress free, and (not) worrying about things, I feel like that will elevate my play a lot more.”
Hightower should be able to scale back his responsibility with Mayo back and healthy, but with plenty of new faces along the defense, Hightower and second-year pro Jamie Collins have been forced to take on more of a leadership role.
“It was a little bit harder losing Mayo and all those guys,” Hightower said. “Before that it was a lot more fluid. And with Jamie, I feel like he’s blossomed a lot sooner than anybody. I feel like he was a lot more mature than some people are in their third year. Him coming in and learning the way he did his first year, you couldn’t tell that he wasn’t a three or a four-year player. He’s helping out a lot, He’s getting the younger guys in there, watching film, and getting everything situated with them. Just like Mayo said: We have old souls. We mature a lot faster.”
Being mature doesn’t mean that Hightower and the rest of the Patriots’ defense — which could be a top 10 unit for the first time in six years — can’t have fun on the field, however.
“Most of all, we’re doing our job, and we’re having fun,” Hightower said. “Being on defense, it’s a lot more fun when you can go out there and have fun instead of worrying about making checks and stuff, when everything comes a lot more fluent because you have that experience, and guys are ready to pick it up a lot faster. It makes it a lot of fun.”
If having fun means that Hightower and Collins will play like they did at the end of the 2014 season, the Patriots’ defense should be primed for success.