New England linebacker Josh Uche was at Michigan when he faced Mac Jones was in the 2020 Cirtus Bowl. “He was a tough,” said Uche. I’m “happy he’s on our team.” Doug Murray/Associated Press

The first time Patriots linebacker Josh Uche met Mac Jones he wanted to crush him.

Uche, then at Michigan, was squaring off against Jones and Alabama in the 2020 Citrus Bowl. Time after time, Uche rushed his future teammate over an eventual 35-16 defeat. He never sacked Jones, though he came close with two hurries.

Uche also came away with a renewed respect for the quarterback he’d been studying for weeks. Jones threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns that day, yet the most impressive part of his performance was how he routinely took punishment in the pocket; even overcoming a hit from Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson that shattered a molar.

“He was a tough kid, man,” Uche said. “He was standing in that pocket. I remember a couple of times I hit him, I’m like, ‘I know he’s not getting up.’ It was a dime the next play, so (I’m) happy he’s on our team.”

The two have reunited in the Patriots locker room, where Jones is settling since being drafted in the first round last month. Jones and the rest of the Patriots’ rookies completed a three-day minicamp last weekend, and have since been kept away from the veterans inside Gillette Stadium. Though starting next week, Jones will align across from his old college foe again when the Patriots hit the field for phase two of their OTA program.

“We said ‘what’s up’,” Uche said of their first meeting in New England. “The rookies are doing their own thing, so I haven’t been able to sit there and keep a scope on them and tally all that they’re doin’. But I’m sure the coaches are handling all that stuff.”

DONT’A HIGHTOWER, the team’s top returning player among the eight who opted out of the 2020 season, has been present for the Patriots’ offseason meetings, Josh Uche told reporters.

Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower was one of eight New England players and about four dozen NFL players to opt out of the 2020 season because of coronavirus concerns. Elise Amendola/Associated Press

More than a year ago, Uche told inquiring teams during draft interviews that he viewed Hightower as a model for how he wanted to be utilized in the NFL. Now, more than a year after the Patriots selected him in the second round, the two are finally sharing a locker room.

Hightower is the team’s top returning player among the eight who opted out of the 2020 season. The longtime captain is entering the final year of his contract, which had been frozen last season.

“Obviously during meetings and stuff, (Hightower)’s in there,” Uche said. “Last year, we would talk, we would text after games and stuff, and he’d give me advice and stuff. So it’s just on and off, and stuff like that because guys are busy, guys have families. So we communicate when we can.”

Uche played inside and outside linebacker as a rookie. Hightower has long flexed between both positions in New England. The 31-year-old played at a Pro Bowl level in his last season, totaling 71 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 13 QB hits and four pass deflections. If he’s can return to a similar level of performance, it’s expected Hightower should again start in the middle of Bill Belichick’s defense.

“I think he’s just a phenomenal football player,” Uche said. “So I mean, just to even share a locker room, it’s truly an honor. God willing, we’ll share the field together.”

Hightower, Uche and the Patriots should hit the field together for the first time on Monday for phase two of their OTA program.

WHILE TOM BRADY’S RETURN is the headliner for the Patriots’ Week 4 showdown in Foxborough with the Buccaneers, Rob Gronkowski is the co-star in the pair’s highly anticipated homecoming.

The former Patriots tight end shared his thoughts about the game with Casey Phillips of the Bucs official team website.

“That’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be pretty epic,” said Gronkowski. “It’s definitely going to be emotional for sure, I would say. I just had a great nine years (in New England). Probably the best nine years of my life. It was the beginning of basically my whole football career there. It’s definitely going to be heartfelt when I go back.”

The 32-year-old won three Super Bowls in New England. He owns the team record for touchdowns (80).

After taking a “retirement” year, Gronkowski returned to play with Brady in Tampa, with the Patriots trading him to the Bucs. He knows the upcoming game is going to be special.

“I’ve just got to be prepared for that game. I’ve got to be prepared for every game, but especially that one,” he said. “It’s never going to be easy. It’s going to be tough. It’s going to be a good one. It’s going to be different.”

THE PATRIOTS RELEASED offensive lineman Najee Toran on Tuesday and officially announced the re-signing of quarterback Brian Hoyer. Their active roster now sits at 87 players.

Toran, a 25-year-old backup, opted out of the 2020 season and has never appeared in an NFL game. After entering the league as an undrafted free agent with the 49ers in May 2018, the team cut him ahead of the 2019 season. Days later, the Patriots signed him to their practice squad, where he remained for the rest of the year.

Toran’s odds of making the team sunk when the Pats signed experienced guards Alex Redmond and James Ferentz earlier this week. He is the second Patriot opt-out to be waived after veteran wideout Marqise Lee. Of the team’s six other opt-outs, safety Patrick Chung retired, and offensive lineman Marcus Cannon was traded.

The team also announced Tuesday it has officially signed sixth-round rookie safety Joshuah Bledsoe.

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