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Hightower a study in determination

Rookie LB looks to Mayo for tips

By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / July 28, 2012
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FOXBOROUGH — When he first stepped foot in Foxborough in 2008, Jerod Mayo was racing down the fast track.

He made his first start in Week 1 against the Chiefs, racked up six tackles and never looked back. He played every down on defense the rest of the season, putting together a debut season so sterling (128 tackles) he earned all but one vote for defensive rookie of the year.

When it came time to vote for captains the next year, Mayo was a given, even if he was just 23 and only in his second year.

“Jerod is an excellent player,” said defensive coordinator Matt Patricia. “He’s a great role model for our team. He’s a leader of our team. But like everybody, he’s out here just trying to improve every day and make himself better and obviously we’re all just trying to make the team better.”

Dont’a Hightower, the linebacker the Patriots took in the first round in April, watched Mayo not only in New England but also when Mayo was at Tennessee wreaking havoc on the Southeastern Conference, and he will be doing his best this season to keep up with the pace Mayo set.

Hightower wants to make the same kind of instant impact, so he’s picking Mayo’s brain during training camp.

“As a linebacker, I feel like most linebackers have the mentality that they want to come in and they want to make a big impact,” Hightower said. “Me talking to him and asking him how he did things as a rookie and how he did things like that, that’s going to help me out the best. I just want to do what I can, whether it’s on special teams or defense, to contribute to this team.

“Right now, I’m just doing what I can, just being a sponge to some of the older guys and trying to learn as much as can.”

Mayo’s seen Hightower’s work ethic in the film room firsthand, and said the advice for Hightower or any of the rookies is simple.

“Just come out and work hard,” Mayo said. “I guess you could call it the Patriot Way. Come out here, listen to the coaches and try to apply everything they teach you in the classroom.”

Patriots coach Bill Belichick has praised Hightower’s football IQ, and he values Hightower’s Alabama pedigree, where defense is a religion.

“He did a lot of different things at Alabama,” Belichick said. “He played primarily inside, a little bit outside, and played some defensive end in some of their nickel four-man line things. What’s he going to do here? I don’t know. We’ll see how he does. But he’s had flexibility in college in a good program at a high level of competition. He’s a smart guy, works hard, he’s got some different skills. We’ll see how they all play out.”

Hightower knows his versatility is an advantage, but he’s willing to play any role to contribute.

“I definitely feel like I can help out somewhere down the line,’’ Hightower said. “I’m going to do what I can, whatever they ask me to do. Whether it’s kicking or holding the snap, whatever I’ve got to do, I’m going to do what I can to be on the field.”

Humility’s sort of the only option he has. When he talks about Hightower, Patricia does not single him out from the other rookies.

“I think everybody out here is trying to learn their position and do the best job they can with that position or multiple positions, if that’s what they’re doing,” Patricia said. “I think we have a philosophy of ‘the more you can learn, the more you can do,’ and just try to go out and do it every day.”

Hightower isn’t shying away from the work.

“It’s everywhere,” he said. “On the field, off the field, in the weight room, how to study for a different level, how to understand different terminology. Again, Mayo’s done well here. [Brandon] Spikes has, too. A lot of guys. I’m just trying to learn as much from those guys while I’m still young and while we’re still going through training camp and the process is a little bit slower than what it will be in a couple of days.”

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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