The Patriots opted to go the small school route to add a potential big play maker with their first pick in the NFL Draft Friday night.
New England selected safety and special teams ace Kyle Dugger of Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne University in Hickory, N.C., with the fifth pick of the second round, the No. 37 overall selection.
Dugger, who said he “talked a lot with [Bill] Belichick during the [predraft] process,” was the lone Division 2 player invited to January’s Senior Bowl and is the first Lenoir-Rhyne player selected since 2000.
“Explosive player. Tough, fast, smart,” said director of player personnel Nick Caserio. “He has some four-down-type elements. We really liked this kid, so we picked him.”
His strong performance during Senior Bowl week answered any questions about his ability to play against top-notch competition.
“It gave me an opportunity to solidify what I already knew — that I can play at this level,’’ Dugger said of his week in Mobile, Ala. He added that he plays “with a mountain on my shoulder — and that’s permanent.’’
The 6-foot-1-inch, 217-pound Dugger is an explosive hitter out and speedy and shifty return man, who brought back six punts for touchdowns for the Bears.
The 24-year-old Dugger, who revealed Friday that he’s “goofier than I appear,” finished his college career with 237 tackles, 10 interceptions, 6 forced fumbles, and 6 fumble recoveries. Dugger, who redshirted in 2016 because of a meniscus injury, returned 67 punts for a school-record 929 yards and said he will compete for that job with the Patriots.
“I’m very comfortable with the ball in my hands and being back to catch the ball and receive and having the opportunity to change the game,’’ he said. “I have a real feel for the football when I’m back there catching punts.’’
Dugger, who has the muscle to play near the box and the range to play over the top, is coming off a season that was cut short to seven games because of a finger injury. Despite that, Dugger received the Cliff Harris Award as the Division 2 Defensive Player of the Year.
Dugger said he’s had conversations about playing both free safety and strong safety at the NFL level.
“It was a good mix of both [but] more so coming down to the box,’’ he said. “There was a little bit of talk about free safety, but it was a pretty good mix of both.’’
Dugger, who compared the feeling of being drafted to “his first Christmas,” said he’s looking forward to learning from veteran New England safeties Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung.
“I do know about their intelligence and their football IQ. I’ve watched them play for a long time and I know a lot about their versatility,’’ he said. “They can do anything you can ask a [defensive back] to do on the football field.’’