FOXBOROUGH — When Jerod Mayo was sidelined with his season-ending pectoral injury last year, it left a gaping hole in the Patriots’ linebackers unit.
Dont’a Hightower was called upon to fill in for the injured cocaptain and provide leadership — something he hadn’t done since his college years at Alabama.
“At first it was a little shaky and I was a little nervous, but all the guys stood behind me and talked me through it, and eventually I started playing better,” Hightower said Thursday at Gillette Stadium.
Mayo will be back this season to lead the linebackers, but with the departures of Brandon Spikes and Dane Fletcher, Hightower will be counted on again to be a key contributor.
With last year’s experience under his belt, Hightower is more ready than ever.
“I feel like it’s going to be easier this time,” Hightower said. “I got thrown in the fire there with the injuries and stuff and I’m a lot more comfortable.
“So from this point on, through workouts and film, I can definitely feel like I’m being looked at as the next leader besides Vince [Wilfork], Devin [McCourty], Mayo and those older guys.”
While Mayo was the quarterback of the defense, often communicating signals to the rest of the unit and making sure everybody was on the same page, Spikes provided the emotional charge.
“Spikes was a big heart of the defense, he played with a lot of emotion, and Dane was a great special teams guy,” Hightower said.
Hightower said he might not be the perfect candidate to replicate Spikes’s energy, but the unit will come together as a whole to do so.
“It might not be me, it might be somebody nobody would expect,” Hightower said. “But from the point we’re at now, everybody working out, we’re having fun and that won’t be a problem. All 11 people on the field will have that special something with him.”
Mayo tore a pectoral muscle during the Patriots’ 30-27 home win against the Saints in Week 6. At first, Hightower struggled with his new responsibilities, but by the end of the season, he was one of the team’s most reliable defenders and led the Patriots with 97 tackles — 55 of which were solo takedowns.
With Mayo out, Hightower was also counted on more to drop into coverage, which left the former Alabama edge-rusher a little out of his comfort zone.
This year, Hightower expects to get back to rushing the quarterback, and he should be able to do that with the return of Mayo and the presence of Jamie Collins, who flashed his coverage skills last season.
Hightower acknowledged he’ll be comfortable in whatever role he is in.
“Third down, honestly, I’ll just put it out there,” Hightower said as he cracked a smile. “I’d much rather rush or blitz than to cover zone, man, or whatever. Third down is a fun down because you can do different things and come at the quarterback all kinds of different ways.
“As long as I’m able to be on the field for third down, whatever they ask me to do I’m more than willing to do it.”
While there is the strong trio of Hightower, Mayo, and Collins at linebacker, there is plenty of depth at the position, too.
Players such as Ja’Gared Davis, Chris White, Steve Beauharnais, and Josh Hull may be called upon to let the starters catch a breath or to fill in during certain situations, and Hightower is pleased with the way they are coming together.
“We have guys in that room that can also step up and play, much like Dane did,” Hightower said.
“Just the way everybody, Chris White, Steve Beauharnais — not just to say it’s all linebackers — but the way we’ve worked and pushed each other, you can tell this linebacker core we have this year is starting to become a lot closer.”
During the offseason, Hightower was able to unwind when he returned to Tennessee to spend time with family. After mandatory mini-camp in June, he’s looking forward to spending the Fourth of July with them — his last true break before training camp.
After that, it’s all business.
“I wanted to take the time I did have off to spend with people I don’t get to see during the year,” Hightower said. “That’s probably the best time to unwind without going too far. I enjoyed it and I got that out of my system and now it’s back to the grind.”Follow Anthony Gulizia on Twitter @gulizia_a.