FOXBORO -- Patriots linebacker Dont'a Hightower is tightly coiled, ready to spring into 2013. The potential for a leap in development between a player's first and second year is something Bill Belichick talks about every season.
"A big part of it is mental," the coach reiterated Sunday morning. "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."
Already, Hightower is noticing differences between this training camp and the last -- his first.
"I feel like everything just kind of slows down, mentally. Not necessarily physically, but definitely mentally. I'm able to see things a little bit quicker. Knowing the playbook, knowing the difference between studying NFL film and college film -- the different players and different philosophies.
"But I've still got great guys around me; [defensive captains] Vince [Wilfork] and [Jerod] Mayo are still helping me out constantly. As long as I stay under those guys I'll be fine."
Hightower had 60 total tackles, 43 solo, and four sacks as a rookie starter. This summer, he's lined up all over the place -- inside, outside; in both odd and even fronts -- and appears confident and strong. Belichick spoke Sunday about the importance of establishing flexibility in defensive players to allow for more versatility in game planning.
Might Hightower's second-year role to expand into more three-down work? He's ready for it whatever comes his way.
"As long as I can stay healthy, stay in the playbook, and learn from some of the older guys, I think I'll be just fine."