My Cousin Vinny. Bon Jovi. Lacrosse. The 1980s New York Giants. His dog Nike. While Bill Belichick keeps a rather serious football-first persona in public, we know of a few things he likes. Now, there is one more thing we can add to this list: Dont’a Hightower. Belichick recently spoke about the linebacker during a press conference and he invested 448 words in praising the New England Patriots’ defensive on-field signal caller.
Belichick was asked how Hightower’s instincts developed since the Patriots drafted him in the first round of the 2012 draft, and he gave a detailed breakdown. “When we saw him at Alabama, we had a long meeting with him down there and other players on the defense. I remember they had a lot of guys in that room, but clearly he had great understanding of everything,” Belichick began his answer to the question.
“At Alabama he played defensive end in their nickel situations. He also played inside linebacker and outside linebacker when Rolando McClain was there, and then Dont’a missed his junior year, or his next-to-last year with the knee injury and then came back and played middle linebacker,” he continued. “So he’s played inside, played outside, played defensive end in the nickel package. He was involved in coverage, involved in pass rush and, again, that system involves a lot.”
Hightower has done much of the same at the next level. Since joining the Patriots with the 25th overall selection six years ago, the Alabama product lined up all over the place: he was used pretty much how Belichick described his role for the Crimson Tide — a team that employs Belichick confidante Nick Saban as its head coach — and generally performed well no matter what the team put on his plate.
One big part of it is communication: Hightower is responsible for conveying the Patriots’ defensive calls to his teammates on the field. And as Belichick pointed out, that is also something he already did well in college — and what makes him such a big part of New England’s operation. “There’s a lot of line call communication, there’s a lot of coverage adjustments and he’s good at all of those,” Belichick said.
“I mean, it’s hard to do those at one position. He did it in multiple positions and multiple personnel groups,” the NFL’s best coach continued. “When he came here it was really more of the same. Obviously, our system is different and what we see is different from our opponents and so forth, so there’s different types of adjustments and so forth, things that we have to deal with. Again, in the big picture it’s in the same box, if you will.”
Belichick then went on to pretty much list all of the qualities he values in the linebacker — and that he does well. “His communication skills are good. He sees things very quickly. He’s decisive. He makes a decision, he makes it quickly, he makes it decisively and then everybody can go with it. He makes the right decisions. He’s got good length. He’s, again, a tall linebacker. He’s tall,” Belichick said.
“Some linebackers don’t have the vision and the height that he has,” he continued. “He sees things quickly, where the backfield set is and the overall just vision of what’s on the other side of the ball. The same thing in the kicking game. We’ve used him in the past in some key roles in the kicking game on punt protection, punt return, so forth. He’s a very, I’d say natural and instinctive football player.”
Belichick was not done praising the 28-year old, who appeared in 14 of the Patriots’ games so far this season and is the team’s number two linebacker in terms of snaps played. “A lot of it comes easy to him but he studies and he’s smart and knows the game plan and is in tune with what they’re doing,” the Patriots’ head coach said. “He works well with the line and the secondary, as well as the linebackers, which that’s important too.”
“Some guys work well within their group but he works well with Devin [McCourty], Pat [Chung], Duron [Harmon], as well as the defensive line — Malcom [Brown] and Lawrence [Guy] and the ends and so forth, giving them calls and making sure that our communication and our assignments are correct on the different offensive formation adjustments we have to make,” Belichick said before concluding his almost 500 word appraisal of Hightower: “He’s good at all of that.”