Joel Taylor didn’t know Kyle Dugger at the beginning of August 2019. The new defensive coordinator at Division 2 Lenoir-Rhyne, in picturesque Hickory, N.C., knew the Bears’ best defensive player by reputation, sure, but he’d never seen him play.
Not until the first live rep of the first padded practice of camp. The offense ran belly option, where the quarterback reverses out and the fullback bounces outside to lead block for the quarterback if he keeps the ball — which he did.
“All of a sudden, I see this big yellow bus coming down and he smokes, absolutely smokes, our starting fullback,'' Taylor said. "Destroys him, and makes a play on the quarterback.
“And I’m like, ‘So, that’s Kyle Dugger.’”
So, who’s Kyle Dugger?
Kyle Dugger is a physical freak, a 6-foot-2-inch, 220-pound athletic safety who’s still growing and who could have outrun, out jumped and outleaped most of this year’s combine invitees when he was a lanky college freshman.
Kyle Dugger is the son of James Dugger and Kimberly Dugger, the latter a Hall of Fame basketball power forward at Fort Valley State University who, at 5-11, could dunk. He’s the brother of Patrick Dugger, who played basketball at LaGrange College in Georgia and then overseas and who, at 6-6, can definitely dunk. Dugger is a hard-hitter and a beloved teammate and has a lot of other attributes you’d expect from a second-round draft pick.
The fact he went to Lenoir-Rhyne is likely the only reason you probably hadn’t heard of him until April 24 when Roger Goodell said, “And with the 37th pick, the New England Patriots select . . . ”
And now the question is, will his small college origins matter?
A chance to grow
Dugger played Div. 2 football because his body ambled toward physical maturity in fits and starts. He was 5-7, 145 pounds and prone to getting teased for his long arms and big feet as a high school freshman when he met Wes Hardin, the offensive coordinator at Whitewater High School in Fayetteville, Ga.
“Unimposing,” Hardin called him.
Hardin wanted Dugger to come out for football, though, because he knew the family measurables and figured he’d grow. Dugger liked basketball better than football, but played running back, receiver and defensive back in the fall, hooped in the winter and played AAU ball in the summer. He did grow to around 6 feet, 165 pounds by the time he was a senior, but it was too late to interest any Division 1 programs, which do most of their recruiting during a prospect’s junior season. It was even too late for most Division 2 programs to get interested.
Harden invited a friend, Jake Copeland, who recruited the Fayetteville area for Lenoir-Rhyne, to one of Dugger’s basketball games, and pitched him on potential. It helped that Dugger was living up to the family name on the court and showing off his vertical leaping ability.
“I said, ‘I think he’s a diamond in the rough. I think he’s going to be a great football player for you,’ ” Hardin said.
The ball skills impressed Copeland, who projected Dugger as a future defensive back or receiver. Lenoir-Rhyne offered Dugger a scholarship. It was the best offer he got in football or basketball, so he took it, but he didn’t forget how the bigger schools had passed on him.
“As far as a chip, yeah, it’s definitely grown into a mountain on my shoulders,” Dugger said. “It’s definitely something that’s going to be permanent.”
Dugger redshirted his freshman year at Lenoir-Rhyne in 2014. The private college with 2,700 students is one of the better Div. 2 schools for athletics so, while Dugger wasn’t playing in the Southeastern Conference, his teammates weren’t stiffs, either. Together they filled Moretz Stadium to its 8,500- seat capacity on Saturdays. The Bears made the Div. 2 national championship game the year before (they lost, 43-28, to Northwest Missouri State) and returned most of their secondary, so they didn’t need Dugger.
The Bears wound up going 11-1. During his freshman year, Dugger was anything but idle, and put on 25 pounds of muscle. When the team would return late at night after road games, they’d often enter the gym to the sound of metal clanking in an unlit weight room. It was Dugger, working out in the dark because he wasn’t supposed to be in there after hours and unsupervised.
By his redshirt freshman season, Dugger had grown well over 6-feet tall and 200 pounds. He started 10 games and was named conference newcomer of the year as a cornerback. During his exit interview, coach Ian Shields brought up professional football for the first time, telling Dugger it was a possibility, if he focused.
“I just wanted to be sure that he had that vision in his head,” Shields said. “I’m not sure that he did, but I know that he did after that.”
Dugger tore his meniscus after one game and sat out the 2016 season as a medical redshirt. Shields got Division 1 job and was replaced by Mike Kellar, who went 3-8. The 2017 season was similarly unspectacular, 3-7, but Dugger started 10 games, made 87 tackles and began to develop his reputation as a bulldozing punt returner. More import, he transitioned to safety.
David Cole, Dugger’s position coach through three coaching administrations at Lenoir-Rhyne, suggested it because he could see that Dugger was still growing. Cole had coached Rontez Miles in college, and saw Dugger as an even more athletic version of the former Jet safety.
Dugger was hesitant but did what he was told. Once he did, he was delighted in how well he could see the field, see the patterns in the offense.
“He just took to it,” Cole said.
Dugger had opportunities to transfer, but chose to stay for his teammates and to remain with Cole. It all paid off his junior year. Lenoir-Rhyne went 12-2 under new coach Drew Cronic and Dugger had a massive year at safety. He started all 14 games, had three interceptions, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. He was first-team all-conference on defense and special teams.
And he was the man in Hickory. Dugger is quiet, even shy, so he wasn’t prone to big nights out or any public chest-thumping. But what else do you call it when a player’s punt returns become must-see events?
Dugger was second in the nation with a school-record 534 punt return yards. Most opposing coaches did not make the mistake of letting him field one, since Dugger could use his quickness to make the first man miss, then barrel the rest of the way downfield, shedding tacklers if necessary. If they did, though, “the air got sucked out of the stadium,” according to Cronic.
“Everybody in the stands stood up because they knew at any minute he could go,” Cronic said. “My dad would come to games and go, ‘I just want to see him return a punt.’”
Dugger returned two punts for touchdowns, going 64 and 69 yards, in the sixth game of the season against rival Newberry College. Cronic, on his way to coaching the biggest turnaround in college football that year, believes that game marked the time the team bought in on the season.
Lenoir-Rhyne was 4-1 but was in a bad spot. Through a ridiculous series of quarterback mishaps (the starter got mono, the backup broke his leg, the third-stringer had a hamstring injury — seriously) they found themselves relying on fourth-string walk-on Gunnar Anderson for the Newberry game.
They got off to a bad start, falling behind,14-0, before getting their first defensive stop. Cole, who was also the special teams coordinator, huddled his guys up.
“This is the moment fellas, this is that moment when we’ve got to be special teams,” Cole told his players.
“I’ve got you, Coach,” Dugger answered.
He did, and Lenoir-Rhyne went on to win, 31-14.
“Our kids began to believe no matter who’s hurt, no matter what’s going on, we can win games,” Cronic said. “And he kept that alive just because of what he did.”
The following March, Seattle Seahawks scout Ryan Florence came to see Dugger. Almost every professional team subscribes to one of two scouting services, National Football Scouting or BLESTO, which they use to share the work of scouting small schools. Teams designate scouts to contribute reports on players from certain regions that every subscribing team can access. Florence was Seattle’s NFS scout.
He clocked Dugger in the 40-yard dash at 4.41 seconds, followed by a 4.45. Dugger measured 6-1 and 218 pounds, still with crazy-long arms and oven-mitt hands. Florence gave him a draftable grade.
“Your life is about to change, man,” he told Dugger that day.
Everyone started coming through Hickory. All 32 teams visited, some four or five times. The Panthers sent their general manager, Marty Hurney, to practice.
Lenoir-Rhyne was on its way to a 13-1 season in 2019, and Cole was having trouble game-planning because there were always scouts in his office, asking about Dugger. Dugger, who turned 24 in March, had the maturity to stay focused amid the attention and even seemed to enjoy football more than usual that fall.
Div.2 has a rule in which athletes get 10 semesters to complete their four seasons of eligibility so, even though Dugger redshirted the year he was injured, he had to leave campus the spring semester of his junior year in order to preserve his 10th and final semester for the fall of his senior year. His coaches felt he came back more upbeat, especially happy to be around the team again. They’d asked him to be a more vocal leader — the one part of playing safety that Dugger hadn’t taken to immediately was the communication — and he came back ready to do that.
Although his season was truncated by a (now healed) finger injury, Dugger still won the Cliff Harris Award, given to the best defensive player in Div. 2, despite spending half his year on the bench.
He was invited to the Senior Bowl, where his draft stock soared. Playing the best competition he’d ever faced, Dugger blanketed tight ends in one-on-one coverage drills, was tough against the run and punishing as a blitzer. He picked off top-10 pick Justin Herbert in practice and made a game-high seven tackles.
“It just gave me an opportunity to kind of solidify what I already knew, that I could play at this level,” Dugger said.
The Bengals’ staff, coaching the South Team, had Dugger play closer to the line of scrimmage than he typically had at Lenoir-Rhyne, more in line with how NFL teams see his best position fit at their level. The entire Patriots’ staff was in attendance following their early exit from the playoffs, and watched Dugger satisfy their main question about him, favorably.
“He’s running a pro defense against a pro offense with soon-to-be pro players. Whether it was one-on-one drills, catching punts, tackling, I think you could really see he was able to compete very favorably at that level of competition.” said Bill Belichick. “Without the Senior Bowl, it certainly would have been, for me, a lot tougher projection if he wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Perfect landing spot
Dugger had had several conversations with Patriots assistant coach Brian Belichick ahead of the draft but the team had made little contact with Lenoir-Rhyne coaches, who figured the Bills, Panthers or Steelers as Dugger’s likeliest landing spots.
Now that he’s been chosen by New England, though, Dugger’s former coaches believe he’s in the right place — a Swiss Army-knife safety chosen by a savvy, creative, defensive-minded coach and team.
“I think he’ll get so much better in the next two years because the competition will demand that from him,” Cronic said. “He’s smart, he’ll absorb information, he’s versatile. He can play all over the secondary and he can grow into an outside backer if they want him to. He could probably be 240 in the bat of an eyelash.”
Dugger’s best fit in the NFL is probably closer to the line of scrimmage than he played in college. He could be the heir-apparent to Patrick Chung, capable of playing the run or blitzing from inside the box and covering tight ends and running backs on passing downs. He can be a defensive coordinator’s pawn, moving him around the chessboard to shift fronts without subbing, as long as he’s up to the competition.
One thing Dugger has going for him is that his abilities on special teams should get him early playing time. Valuable special teams players are active on game days, and you can’t get snaps unless you’re active.
His former coaches believe the NFL will be the first place Dugger actually fits in, football-wise, which is only half-true: even at the NFL level, he’s still elite athletically.
Dugger was the first of three Div. 2-3 selections in the 2020 draft and the first Div. 2 pick of the Patriots since they took defensive end Zach Moore of Concordia University in the sixth round in 2014. Bemidji State’s Gunner Olszewski also made the Patriots roster as an undrafted free agent receiver last season.
When football starts again, these distinctions — the ones that favor Dugger, and the ones that don’t — won’t matter much. It won’t be about how high someone can jump or what college they went to, it’ll just be time for football. And then we’ll learn who Kyle Dugger really is.