It wasn’t but a year ago that Dont’a Hightower was a wide-eyed rookie looking to Jerod Mayo for guidance and advice. Now, entering just his second NFL season, he’s the one giving the guidance.
During his rookie season, Hightower leaned heavily on Mayo for direction and leadership in how to acclimate to not just the NFL but more importantly to the Patriots’ program. By season’s end he still didn’t feel 100 percent integrated, but the now second-year linebacker says the veteran leadership is what helped him find his way.
“Definitely learned a lot,” Hightower said of the 2012 season. “I learned a lot when I first came in. I learned a lot during, and then even now. Learning just little smaller tricks. Things from Mayo. The linebacker corps as a whole, we?re all pretty close. We all work together. So we all take tips and tricks from everybody.”
Hightower, who turned 23 during the offseason, used the examples of those veterans as a framework for his own game as the season wore on — and the results were noticeable. His presence as a consistent run stopper and capable pass rusher helped in the Patriots’ development on defense and was a major cog in their run to the AFC Championship Game.
With that successful season now behind him, Hightower is looking solely toward the future, which now includes a new class of rookies. Hightower has spent the early stages of offseason workouts with some of the new rookies, getting to know them as people and offering them a hand in the development process. Much like Mayo did for him as a rookie, Hightower is now trying to be a resource for some of his new teammates — namely second-round pick and fellow linebacker Jamie Collins.
“Yeah, me and Jamie actually hung out the other night and watched the basketball game,” Hightower said of the Patriots’ new defender. “He?s a real cool dude, he works hard. I don?t think he?s going to have a problem at all jumping in, fitting in. Whether it?s at linebacker or defensive end or wherever he?s going to be at. He?s going to bring athleticism and versatility to the team. That?s why we got him.”
A versatile linebacker himself, Hightower fully understands the sort of value that Collins can add to this defense. He’s got great speed, an incredible vertical leap (41 1/2 inches) and a NFL combine record-setting broad jump (139 inches), giving the Patriots exactly the type of athlete they need to help out in coverage. Hightower recognizes that and is doing all he can to impart wisdom onto the young linebacker, even offering sound advice.
“Just pick out notes, mental and just do everything they did,” Hightower said of following the veterans’ lead. “That?s the biggest thing once you have somebody older. You just copy whatever they do and you?ll be fine.”
Normally, second-year players are still developing both on and off the field, but Hightower seems to be well ahead of the curve. He sounds ready to contribute in a much bigger way on the field this season, but he’s clearly taking on a more active role off the field, as well.
“I’m trying to graduate a little bit more than that, trying to become a little bit more of a leader,” Hightower said. “Not necessarily the Vince Wilforks or the Mayos, but just one those guys that everybody looks up to and sees their work ethic.”
While he’s actively ready for a more prominent role in leading the Patriots this season, Hightower won’t be the leader of the Patriots defense — and he’s more than fine with that.
“That’s going to be down the road, hopefully,” Hightower added. “Hopefully, Tom [Brady] and Vince and Mayo [are] going to be here for a long time. But if I was ever asked to step up and do that role, I’d be honored to do that.”
His time will come soon enough. But, for now, at least Bill Belichick knows he has yet another leader to rely on.