Dont’a Hightower was taken out of his comfort zone in 2013, but still played well. (USA TODAY Images)

(This is the ninth in a series of individual player spotlights over the next few weeks leading up to training camp. So check back frequently as we go down the roster. ¬†This edition focuses on Patriots¬†LB Dont’a Hightower:)

2013 Summary: 

Like fellow teammate Jamie Collins, Dont’a Hightower came out of 2012 having had a season where he had some good moments and seemed poised for a solid sophomore season.

Instead, he saw his world turned upside down after teammate Jerod Mayo was lost for the season with a torn pectoral muscle in their dramatic week six victory over the Saints.

It changed Hightower’s role on the team, which shows how smart Bill Belichick is in terms of preparing players to adjust to those situations. ¬†Prior to the start of the season,¬†Hightower,¬†like several other players, spent some time wearing the “green dot” designation given to the player in charge of calling out the defense. ¬†That ended up being a key experience for Hightower, who took over that duty after Mayo went down.

From there they picked up and moved on after Mayo ended up on injured reserve and Hightower seemingly got more comfortable as the season went on. It’s obvious that it required a bit of an adjustment, and the downside for Hightower is it¬†limited some of his¬†abilities to make plays. That lead to some whispers about his play by critics who questioned his production without fully understanding his responsibilities.

Down the stretch, for the most part Hightower handled it well and by season’s end looked like a different player as he settled in. ¬†He even finished the season with three passes defensed, which came in week nine against Pittsburgh, week thirteen against the Texans and in week 16 against the Ravens.

Overall, it’s an experience that took Hightower out of his comfort zone, but it’s safe to say that it also likely made him a better player.

Best game of 2013:

Hightower’s best overall performance came against the Colts in the AFC Divisional Playoff round, with the linebacker having a great outing both against the run and in the passing game. ¬†He finished with eight tackles, along with a key interception with just over a minute left in the first half as the Colts were driving and were in Patriots’ territory. ¬†It came thanks to a terrific heads-up play on a throw by Andrew Luck that was thrown behind¬†fullback Stanley Havili. ¬†The ball bounced off his shoulder pad and Hightower, who was in coverage and right there with him, alertly plucked it away, making the interception and ending the scoring threat.

Notable Stat of 2013:

Hightower finished with a team-leading 55 solo tackles in 2013, and combined for 97 tackles overall, eight more than Rob Ninkovich. ¬†During their two postseason games he also lead the way, finishing with 10 solo tackles while combining for 16 and also¬†had¬†one of the team’s four interceptions.

What to Watch For in 2014: 

With Mayo healthy, Hightower should be able to move back over and hopefully be able to use his speed a little more in 2014 now that he’ll have the freedom to get back to what he’s good at, which is using his speed and instincts. ¬†He’s deceptively fast, and with his size, 6’3″ 270lbs, it’s surprising¬†how quick and athletic he is. ¬†It’s worth noting that he was seen during OTA’s playing up on the line of scrimmage, including occasionally rushing from the edge. ¬†How he’s used and whatever additional responsibilities he’s given should be an interesting thing to watch during camp.

The linebacker position is a strength for this team heading into the preseason and Hightower is one of the biggest reasons why. ¬†He’s already proven that the decision by the Patriots to move up and grab him in the first round in 2012 so far has been the right one, and 2014 should hopefully be a good season for him.