FOXBORO - OK, admit it. You hear the name "Hightower," and you immediately think of Bubba Smith's character in the "Police Academy" movies, right?
The 6-foot-7 former defensive end for the Colts, Raiders and Oilers, who died almost exactly a year ago at the age of 66, played his imposing size for laughs in that series of comedies, portraying a mild-mannered florist of prodigious strength who joins a band of misfits seeking to become police officers.
The Patriots now have a real-life Hightower in their midst, and he's learning the ropes in the football academy known as training camp. He's a little smaller than Bubba Smith at 6-foot-3, 275 pounds, and he plays a different position (inside linebacker, although with the versatility to rush the passer), and there's nothing at all whimsical about his approach to the game.
Dont'a Hightower is totally serious and totally focused upon what he wants to accomplish on the football field.
"I'm just trying to be a sponge and learn as much as I can before the preseason game," Hightower said late last week at the Gillette Stadium practice complex. "I'm just doing whatever I can, whatever Coach (Bill Belichick) asks me to do. Maybe not even start on defense, just on special teams or whatever it is, (but) I just want to be as diverse as I can to help the team."
The early returns suggest much more than token appearances for the Alabama product, the 25th overall selection in April's draft and the second of the Patriots' two first-round picks. He's been a constant on the field in practice, taking reps with the No. 1 defense, and it only seems a matter of time before the team will replace his No. 45 jersey with a number in the 50s, more fitting for a starting linebacker.
Starting early in his career is nothing new for Hightower.
"I got to come in and start my first game as a freshman, so I'm very proud of that," he said. "I'm one of maybe 13 players to ever do that at Alabama."
Unlike many other rookies, Hightower practically scoffed at the notion that the game automatically gets faster when you take a step up from colleges to the pros - even on a team as accomplished as the Patriots.
"The speed hasn't changed as much," he said. "It's not as big as I thought it would be. But the players that are around me and in front of me, you can definitely tell the difference between college and the pros. It's just something that after a while, as you get a little bit of experience, things will slow down. I'd starting to get to that bump where things will slow down a little for you. I'll be getting a little more comfortable in my style of play."
Of course, it helped that Hightower played his college football for Nick Saban, a member in good standing of the Bill Belichick coaching tree. He's already been indoctrinated in the ways of the big time.
"Dont'a obviously comes from a really good program," Belichick said. "He was a very productive player early in his career and, of course, had an outstanding year last year. He's done a lot of different things at Alabama. He played primarily inside, a little bit outside and played some defensive end in some of their nickel four-man line things."
Playing for a program like the Crimson Tide, Hightower was also exposed to a deep and demanding playbook. That definitely took another leap up upon his arrival in New England, but with no hint of hesitation, the native of Lewisburg, Tenn., said he was up to the challenge.
"I feel one of the biggest things I have is my football IQ, and I feel like I'm able to grasp things a little bit faster than others," he said. "So I feel like I'm doing a pretty good job of learning the playbook. I'm just trying to be a sponge to some of the older guys learning to know cheat sheets and different hints that they know that I don't know yet.
"I spend plenty of time with (Jerod) Mayo, (Brandon) Spikes, (Patrick) Chung, all those guys, learning the different systems, so just being a sponge is probably my biggest asset right now, just trying to learn from everybody," he added.
Hightower certainly was a sponge of sorts at Alabama, soaking up 234 career tackles and closing his career as the leader of a national-champion defense with a career-high 85 tackles.
He and fellow rookie Chandler Jones, the defensive end from Syracuse taken four picks earlier in the draft, have definitely made a significant impact in training camp. But as Bill Parcells said of others in the past, it's not time to put either of them in Canton (Ohio, home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame) yet. The first preseason game is still four days away - 7:30 p.m. at home against the New Orleans Saints (Ch. 4, 64) - and the Patriots have to knock heads with the Saints in two days of practice beforehand.
As it will be Hightower's first pro contact other than against someone on his own team, maybe then Belichick will be able to offer a more accurate progress report for how Hightower is doing in this football academy.
"What's he going to do here? I don't know," Belichick said. "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."