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Extra Points

Alabama Star Finally Rolling in Patriots Stout Defense

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Great expectations abound in Foxborough. The Patriots are expected to win the Super Bowl every year. Tom Brady is expected to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league year in and year out. And high draft picks, especially on defense, are expected to be saviors, particularly over the past few years when the team has struggled on that side of the ball.

Such was the case in 2012, when the Pats had two first round draft picks, surprised many regular observers by keeping both (No. 21 and 25) and went for defense each time. At 21, they took fleet, powerful pass rushing defensive end Chandler Jones. And at 25, they dipped into the Alabama well, home of Bill Belichick buddy Nick Saban, who had built a national championship winning machine on D, and grabbed one of its most potent parts in linebacker Dont’a Hightower.

Hightower was one of four Crimson Tiders selected in that draft’s first round, the third on defense. Safety Mark Barron (who was linked to the Pats in some of the pre-draft chatter) and cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick went before him, along with running back Trent Richardson. It had been rumored that the Baltimore Ravens, who didn’t pick until early in the second round that year, at No. 35 overall, had their sights set on Hightower as a potential replacement for the retiring Ray Lewis, but the Pats swooped in ahead of their AFC rivals and got their man, leaving the Ravens to pick Hightower’s fellow ‘Bama backer, Courtney Upshaw.

A native of Lewisburg, Tenn., the man they call High was a hugely decorated high school recruit who chose Saban and Alabama over Auburn, Georgia Tech and his own state school, Tennessee. He started 12 games as a true freshman in 2008 but a torn ACL four games into his sophomore season put what looked to be a stellar college career on hold.

After spending the rest of that injury ravaged season serving as something of a coaching assistant alongside Saban’s staff, he used 2010 as a medical redshirt year and played middle linebacker, helping the Alabama defense overcome a slow start before showing signs of being the title winning force it would be in 2011, when the Tide dominated their way to a second BCS National Championship in three years. Hightower exploded that season, posting career highs in tackles, sacks, and pass breakups while adding a field goal block for good measure.

Jones and Hightower’s arrival at Patriot Place looked like a runaway win, a foolproof draft victory. Here were two impact, big name college stars arriving to inject some fresh blood into the veins of a defense that was consistently the weak link on a team built to win championships. Each of them came with solid reputations and when they teamed up for a strip sack (Jones) and return for a score (Hightower) in their first pro game, the 2012 season-opening win at Tennessee, Pats fans were rightfully frothing at the mouth. And it helped immensely that Hightower was moving from one scheme in college to a very similar one in the NFL thanks to the relationship between Saban and Belichick.

“It’s somewhat the same here as it is there,” Hightower says. “There’s some different terminology but similar philosophies. It’s been a little easier for me to grasp onto since I come from some concepts and little things I was already familiar with.”

Although his tremendous physical tools – excellent speed and quickness for a 270-pounder along with the requisite strength – were obvious, Hightower’s intelligence and savvy on the field were immediately visible. He’d come out of Alabama with a reputation for being a player with a very high football IQ, capable of filling multiple roles. His teammate with the Tide, Rolondo McClain, even called him a freak once when asked about his versatility, adding that Hightower, “can play any position on the field.”

It’s a popular sentiment when discussing Hightower. Teammate Rob Ninkovich raved about him after practice one afternoon this week, noting in particular that Hightower, “knows so much football. The university he comes from, obviously, they played at a high level. So he came in with a lot of knowledge and I think that’s it’s just grown.”

Hightower is wise beyond his years when it comes to the game. Which is why when Jerod Mayo, the leader of the Pats linebackers, and among the leaders of the defense as a whole unit, went down with a torn pectoral muscle in a Week 6 win over the Saints last year, Hightower got the green dot, signifying the player who communicates with the sideline and coaches box and calls the signals, on his helmet.

But for all of his talent and brainpower, the transition into Mayo’s spot proved to be somewhat of a tall task. As versatile as he is, Hightower was instantly out of position playing on the weak side of a 4-3 alignment, where lighter, more capable coverage linebackers usually line up. And with Vince Wilfork also out with a torn Achilles, Hightower was suddenly as much a leader of the Pats’ front seven, with all of 24 NFL games under his belt, as anyone.

The Pats’ defense, which had shown signs of becoming a topflight unit before Wilfork and Mayo went down, started to falter. The first game after Mayo’s injury was a loss to the Jets in which the Pats allowed 30 points. To the Jets. Three games later, they lost to Carolina on Monday Night Football in a contest marked by the D’s inability to get off the field. And a week later, they fell behind the Denver Broncos 24-0 by halftime, and Hightower was benched in favor of Dane Fletcher.

“It was a little too much, a little too soon,” says Rattey.

The Pats would come back to win that night in incredible fashion, but the struggles continued. They barely pulled out wins over doormats like Cleveland and Houston. They allowed 20-plus points in seven of nine games after Mayo went down and Hightower slid into his spot (one of the sub-20 point games was a 27-17 win over Miami). And although he responded very positively to the benching in the Denver game, with his performance in the Pats’ divisional round playoff win over the Colts a huge highlight, it was perfectly fair to wonder whether it would carry over into 2014, his third season, or if there would be some residue from the tough spot he struggled getting out of last year.

So far so good. With the Pats’ defense mostly healthy across the board, Hightower is back in his comfort zone and cleaning up. His experience taking on more responsibility in Mayo’s absence last year has shown in each of the Pats first three games. The defense is ranked second in the league during that stretch and Hightower has been all over the field.

“I’m just accepting my role,” he says. “I still have a little more on my plate but I’m glad to have it. I’m just trying to take advantage of it.”

Belichick appears to be more than OK with Hightower doing everything from dropping into coverage from different spots to rushing the passer as a down lineman to playing in space and picking up backs out of the backfield to blitzing from the middle of the formation, to simply standing up on the edge and getting after the quarterback, an act he seems most comfortable with, as evidenced by his two sacks, four hurries and five QB hits in three games.

“Dont’a is a very versatile player,” says coach Bill. “He’s played multiple positions for us. He did that in college. I think the big thing for a player like Dont’a is his ability to play on third down – his ability to cover and rush the passer, which gives your defense a lot of flexibility. He’s a guy that you really want on the field on third down for the number of different things he can do. I wouldn’t say that’s always the case with linebackers like him – inside linebackers. But that’s what makes him a really good player. He’s good on all downs, but he gives you a lot of versatility and can also play on fourth down for us as well.”

Dont’a Hightower felt like a perfect fit when he was drafted, looked like a perfect fit when his NFL career began and now, after some growing pains, is beginning to feel like a perfect fit for a Super Bowl caliber defense. Jones, Hightower's first round mate from 2012, may have himself a Defensive Player of the Week honor from Week 2 in Minnesota. But it’s Hightower who’s making the case in the early going to be the Pats’ defensive player of the year.

“I’m just trying to keep practicing how I play and let my versatility show, do all the things I’m capable of doing,” he says. “I’m trying to be a sponge. It’s good for us younger guys to see how the older guys do things and then be able to do them the same way. I don’t have the same strips as those guys but it’s something I aspire to. Those guys are doing something right, so I should be too.”

Jeremy Gottlieb can be reached at jeremy.gottlieb@globe.com and on Twitter @jmg2776.

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