Pepper is high on Hightower

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Patriots rookie linebacker Dont'a Hightower didn't take long to make his impact felt in New England, as he returned a fumble for a score in the team's season-opener against the Tennessee Titans.

The play is a microcosm of the smooth transition Hightower has made to the NFL coming out of Alabama, his two games missed to a hamstring injury notwithstanding.

Linebackers coach Pepper Johnson, a former standout linebacker under Bill Belichick with both the Giants and Browns, said he's not surprised by the way Hightower has been able to immerse himself was expected.

"It was as expected," Johnson said on Thursday. "He's not your average rookie. He's like Vince [Wilfork] in the mindset. He came in already a professional, already fine-tuned into what it takes to be a professional football player. He's young sometimes in conversation, but his approach to the game is strictly professional. He's easy to coach, to me."

Johnson said that upon Hightower's arrival in New England, it didn't take long to realize that he was already a mature player.

"Probably the third day," he noted. "It was kind of early. I heard about it from my coaches and stuff that went out there to Alabama to recruit him. And then when he came in the door, [I thought] I've got to let this sink in for a little while, and really by day three it was kind of obvious that he has the mindset. He has the mindset of at least a three- or four-year veteran."

When asked if that mindset and maturity was developed through playing under Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who Johnson himself played for in Cleveland while Saban was Belichick's defensive coordinator, the linebackers coach said he wasn't entirely sure, but suggested Hightower's upbringing might have also played a part.

"I can't really say, but I would like to think some of it was upbringing, how he was raised and stuff," he continued. "But I'm quite sure Coach Saban, knowing what I know about Coach Saban, he was probably screaming at him enough. He's already ready for it."

In Hightower and fellow starting linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes, Johnson has the opportunity to coach a trio of players that some have compared with the linebacking corps that Johnson was a part of during his playing career. Johnson, 48, said he enjoys working with the group.

"Oh yes, definitely," Johnson said. "Those guys have a lot of energy, and they're excited about playing, they're happy about playing the game. It's fun to coach them and it's great to see them go out there and play."

The three share roots back to the SEC, and while Johnson says he isn't concerned about where the players came from, he sees similarities in their dedication both on the field and in the classroom.

"Jerod Mayo and Spikes and Hightower, they are all different I would say in the sense of off the field and outside of our classroom, but they all bring the same mentality when they come on the football field and in the classroom," he said.