Patriots

3 takeaways from The Athletic’s profile of Kyle Dugger

"[Bill Belichick] got himself a new toy.”

Safety Kyle Dugger was drafted by the Patriots the 37th pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. AP Photo/Butch Dill

When the Patriots drafted Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger, Dugger’s own coaches were surprised.

In a profile written by The Athletic’s Jeff Howe, those who played a role in helping the Division II prospect get to the NFL admitted that his journey was both unprecedented and unexpected. He was a talented point guard on the basketball court at Whitewater High School in Fayetteville, Ga., but the safety did not even make their varsity football team until his junior year. By his senior signing day, he only had two football offers — from Lenoir-Rhyne and Reinhardt, an NAIA school.

His football head coach at Whitewater, Wes Hardin, called Dugger “a diamond in the rough,” but was far from sure about his NFL potential, and Lenoir-Rhyne’s then-graduate assistant coach Jake Copeland, who helped recruit Dugger to the school, said he “never envisioned this for him.” Ian Shields, now a defensive analyst at UNLV, did notice Dugger’s potential as a future pro but did not think he was a 37th draft-pick.

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Dugger would finish his career at Lenoir-Rhyne with 237 tackles, 10 interceptions, 36 pass break-ups, six forced fumbles, and six fumble recoveries. He is also the school’s all-time leader punt-return yardage (929).

Despite doubts about him at the next level, Dugger’s drive is what has landed him with the Patriots. He is the first Division II player from Lenoir-Rhyne to be drafted into the NFL since 2000.

Here’s what we learned about how Dugger got there:

He had basketball aspirations – and was reluctant about playing college football.

Named first-team all county his senior season, Dugger was an athletic point guard who averaged 7.6 points, 3.5 assists, 3.7 rebounds, and 2.5 steals per game in high school, according to MaxPreps. He also comes from a talented basketball family: his older brother, Patrick, played professional basketball overseas, and his mother, Kimberly, was a standout at Fort Valley State. She averaged a double-double all four seasons, and by her senior year in 1989, she led all of Division II in rebounding with 15.1 rebounds per game. She was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2009.

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While Dugger did not make Whitewater’s varsity football team until his junior year, it was on the basketball court where he caught the attention of Copeland, now a wide receivers coach at Lenoir-Rhyne. In a matchup against Northgate High School — Copeland’s alma-mater — Dugger showcased his athleticism by nailing an impressive windmill dunk. It was enough to sell Copeland on his potential as a football player.

“Yeah, this is a no-brainer for us at Lenoir-Rhyne,” he thought at the time.

Yet, Dugger was committed to basketball and was hesitant about visiting Lenoir-Rhyne for an official visit because he did not want to miss a game or practice. After Copeland “begged” him, Dugger eventually visited and wowed the coaches in a workout, posting a 38-inch vertical leap.

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Lenoir-Rhyne knew they wanted him, but Dugger was still was not entirely sold on the school. On his signing day,  he was even “holding out” for a basketball scholarship, but after Copeland “pushed” some more, he committed to the school.

“We knew we had something special,” said Shields.

Dugger considered transferring at one point to get more pro-level exposure.

In college, Dugger showcased his versatility and athleticism by playing three different positions throughout his career. During his redshirted freshman season in 2015, he excelled at corner and was named South Atlantic Conference Defensive Freshman of the Year. In 2016, his coaches moved him to safety to “capitalize on his ball skills and improve his chance of getting to the NFL” – but he tore his  meniscus in practice and missed the entire season. Once he returned the following season, he showed “prowess” as a punt returner and tallied three interceptions, 13 pass breakups, and two forced fumbles in 2018.

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However, Dugger considered transferring to a program in the FCS conference due to lack of NFL exposurebut stuck with the program given associate head coach David Cole’s track record of coaching NFL defensive backs at California University of Pennsylvania.

In fact, it was Cole who helped Dugger get looks from NFL scouts. After Dugger’s junior season, Cole sent his highlight tape to Colts scout Mike Derice, who “was impressed.” He also landed a workout with a scout from the Seattle Seahawks – and clocked in a 4.4 second 40-yard dash time.

Once the scout put Dugger’s times into a database, NFL teams quickly caught on. According to the coaches at Lenoir-Rhyne, the entire Panthers front office visited the school last season.

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“Everybody went, ‘Oh crap, I’ve got to get to Hickory,’”Brock recalled. “It was crazy. It was a drastic change not just for him but our entire campus. We hadn’t had NFL people on campus during the season maybe but once or twice in my previous 10 years.”

Dugger’s coaches say the Patriots were not one of the teams who out-rightly expressed interest.

A week before the 2020 NFL Draft, the Bills, Steelers and Panthers had shown the most interest in Dugger as a prospect, while the Patriots had visited campus but “never tipped their hand” to him. Dugger’s coaches at Lenoir-Rhyne do not even “recall a single conversation” with the team.

When the Patriots traded their No.23 pick to the Chargers for a No.37 second-round pick, Patriots director of player personnel Nick Caserio said that Dugger was who they wanted because of how he performed at the Senior Bowl.

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“We basically had three guys we wrote down and said if we could get these three guys, we would be somewhat happy,” Caserio said after the second day of the Draft. “He was one of them. Uche was the other one, another guy that got picked. But Dugger, obviously small school, but pretty explosive player…[He] held his own at the Senior Bowl against better competition. One of the things you like to see or you look for is the player like that with that background to see how they hold up in that environment. He acquitted himself fairly well.”

However, Cole was surprised when the Patriots drafted him. He had heard from the Bills that Dugger was who they wanted at the 54th pick.

“The Patriots were up and you’re always looking to see what coach (Bill) Belichick is going to do,” Cole said. “[Dugger’s] name gets called and I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot, what?’ I jumped out of my chair. I’m thinking the Bills, the Steelers, the people who were super interested. I talked to a guy with the Bills who said they were definitely picking him if he’s there at 54.

“Coach Belichick, he’s a dog. No one needs to tell him that. He knows what he’s doing. He got himself a new toy.”

 

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