NEPD Editor James Christensen
A year ago, the fresh face of Dont’a Hightower was just trying to fit in during his first training camp in Foxboro. Today he stands as part of the new look defense that is charged this year with winning games, not just holding on to the lead.
See what Hightower had to say and other notes from the third day of Patriots training camp.
Bill Belichick started the day talking about the development of second year players such as Hightower.
“A big part of it is mental. Certainly when those guys step on the field, they have a lot more experience and expectation of what the way things are going to be both in terms of level of competition, the people they’re going against, also what they’re doing, what the scheme is – for a guy who is in the same system two years in a row. I think those things are a huge advantage. There’s definitely an element of physical development and that’s not to be understated but I think the mental part of it is probably bigger just knowing what they need to do, knowing what the competition is going to be, knowing how they need to prepare for situations that they had never been through the year before. I think that’s certainly an advantage for them in the second year.”
Hightower has lined up all over the field during my days here at training camp – playing inside and outside in both odd and even fronts. I often remarked in the pre-draft process that Hightower was a good pass-rusher, in addition to his linebacking skills. However, Hightower didn’t feel that was where he was best used. He remarked that he wants to be “inside with the guards, tackles and fullbacks.”
Whether Hightower – along with fellow versatile linebackers Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Jamie Collins – plays inside or outside, his versatility allows the Patriots to come up with a different gameplan each and every week. That unpredictability keeps opposing offenses guessing.
Hightower’s ability to learn such a complex defense and play multiple positions is a credit to his strong football IQ and the help of some veterans on the team – especially Jerod Mayo.
“Mayo has been in this defense for a while now. He knows every position, not just the linebackers and the defensive line. He knows what the cornerbacks and the safeties have to do. Having him in the linebacker room and as a close friend, it feels good to have that guy in your back pocket.”
Hightower feels good enough about his own grasp of the playbook that he is starting to mentor Collins along as well.
Today, Hightower looked at home in the goal line drills, making some big hits and showcasing his explosive, violent downhill nature.
With Brandon Spikes, another player that is asked to do a lot in the defense, in his contract year, a young linebacker like Hightower might be even more important in the future.
Expect Hightower to improve on his rookie season where he chalked up four sacks and 60 tackles.
One on one battles were great to watch. On the defensive side of things, Tommy Kelly, Marcus Benard, Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich all had decisive wins, while Joe Vellano struggled mightily.
On the offensive side of things, I thought Marcus Cannon and Ryan Wendell were very solid. Nate Solder got beat a couple times – once by Jake Bequette and once by Jones. Sebastian Vollmer didn’t look great either, tying with Hightower and losing to Ninkovich.
Cleaning out the notebook:
-Bill Belichick characterized Armond Armstead’s issue as “something different” when asked if it was related to his prior injury / illness history.
-Stevan Ridley had two fumbles on the day, taking a penalty lap for each one. Vince Wilfork was in on both plays. Hopefully this gets cleaned up quickly before it becomes a problem again.
-Kyle Arrington had a nice interception, picking off an slightly underthrown ball by Tom Brady while covering Dobson.
-There was a lot of work on special teams today, with the focus on kickoff coverage and return. Leon Washington looked as advertised.
-Tavon and Adrian Wilson both lined up in a variety of positions. I expect to see some three safety sets at some point this season.
-Troy Brown was in the house and saw another good day from fellow Marshall alum Aaron Dobson.
-Marcus Benard, who we touched on here, continues to excel as a pass-rusher. Has some Mark Anderson to him.
-Vince Wilfork set the tone early, flipping the blocking sled over. Other defensive players worked to match it. Wilfork also was an absolute menace in goal line and live action.
-LaVelle Hawkins and Michael Jenkins struggled with drops in drills and Jenkins’ problems continued during live action.
-Dobson, Kenbrell Thompkins and Michael Jenkins worked with the “X” group, while Danny Amendola and Josh Boyce worked with the “Z” group.
-Ras-I Dowling didn’t look great in 7v7 and 11v11, but his physicality was present early and often, giving Dobson fits in blocking drills.
-Physicality was a theme amongst the corners, with Talib, Dennard and Logan Ryan also showing strength and getting their hands on a lot footballs.
-Michael Hoomanawanui and Zach Sudfeld continue to impress in Gronkowski’s absence. They just don’t drop the ball.
-Michael Buchanan, Jamie Collins and Jason Vega all worked with the linebackers.
-Josh Boyce continued to impress. He and Danny Amendola are able to uncover at will.
-Stephen Gostkowski was solid in practice, only missing one kick from approximately 53 yards. He struggled a bit more in live action, missing two kicks – although due to the angle of the Media Tent, I can only confirm one miss.
-Practice ended with Kenbrell Thompkins catching a long touchdown from Tim Tebow, who wasn’t nearly as bad as he was yesterday.