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Kyle Dugger only got two offers to play Division 2 football. Now, he’s one of the Patriots defense’s most impactful players

Kyle Dugger (right) has come a long way from Division 2 college football.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

After Monday’s ground-and-pound win over the Bills, Patriots safety Devin McCourty wanted to make something clear.

“We missed Dugg out here tonight,” he said. “Even though we played well, Dugg’s presence definitely would have been felt.”

While McCourty credited second-year safety Myles Bryant for his performance, he didn’t want to diminish the loss of starter Kyle Dugger, who was sidelined after testing positive for COVID-19.

“I want it to be known, though, it’ll be good to get Dugg back,” McCourty said.

Dugger has emerged as a key piece of New England’s defense. As a 24-year-old rookie last year, he appeared in 14 games, playing 50.9 percent of the defensive snaps and making 64 tackles.

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This year, he’s already exceeded those numbers through 13 games. He leads the team in solo tackles with 62 and has 80 total. He also is one of four Patriots with multiple interceptions (three for 80 yards). In each game he’s played, Dugger has been on the field for at least 70 percent of the defensive snaps.

When the Patriots selected Dugger out of Lenoir-Rhyne with the 37th overall pick, fans were likely asking, “Who? From where?” But now Dugger, thanks to his athleticism and work ethic, has put himself on the map.

“He’s definitely getting a better feel for the game in the NFL and kind of what offenses try to do here that’s different from college,” said defensive coach Steve Belichick. “He works hard, puts a lot into it, and the results are starting to pay off. He’s doing a good job. He’s gifted physically. I think people are starting to see that. We’ve seen it around here for a while. That’s why we drafted him. Hopefully, we can continue for him to get better.”

Kyle Dugger is one of four Patriots with multiple interceptions this season.Maddie Meyer/Getty

So, how did Dugger end up in New England?

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Coming out of high school, Dugger only had two offers to play college football: Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, N.C., and Reinhardt University in Waleska, Ga., both Division 2 schools.

At Lenoir-Rhyne, Dugger redshirted his freshman season in 2014. He stayed busy, though, as the coaching staff would often find him in the weight room by himself upon returning from road games. Dugger put on 25 pounds that year.

When he took the field the following season, Dugger immediately carved out a role, starting 10 games and leading the team with six pass breakups, four interceptions, and two fumble recoveries. The South Atlantic Conference named him Defensive Freshman of the Year.

“When I first saw him in person, I was like, wow, this kid is a big kid that can move around and has great ball skills and a lot of tools to work with,” said David Cole, who joined Lenoir-Rhyne’s staff in 2016 as a special teams coordinator and secondary coach. “My first impression of him was, ‘This dude is a freakin’ baller.’ ”

Dugger had to redshirt the 2016 season after tearing his meniscus on a cut during practice. When he returned in 2017, he didn’t miss a beat, registering 87 tackles in 10 games. The next season, he also developed a reputation as a dangerous punt returner.

According to the stat sheet, Dugger returned 31 punts for a school-record 534 yards and two touchdowns. According to Cole, Dugger actually found the end zone eight times, with several scores called back because of penalties.

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Kyle Dugger hasn't returned many kicks for the Patriots, but he can be dangerous with the ball as well as without it.Jim Davis/Globe Staff

“If you ever came to a Lenoir-Rhyne game and you knew Kyle Dugger, you waited for a punt,” Cole said. “You held your breath. When that punt got into the air, it was an exciting moment. It was like waiting for Barry Bonds to break the record. Seventy-five, 80 percent of the time, he didn’t let you down.”

As a redshirt senior in 2019, Dugger only appeared in seven games because of a finger injury but still won the Cliff Harris Award, an honor given each year to the best defensive player from a Division 2, Division 3, or NAIA school.

Cole had already sent Dugger’s tape to NFL scouts. Their response? “Yeah, he can play.” Even coaches that had left Lenoir-Rhyne were still talking about him.

Josh Aldridge, Dugger’s defensive coordinator in 2018 who had left for a job at Liberty, ran into Seahawks scout Ryan Florence while working in Virginia. Aldridge asked Florence, “Have you been down to Lenoir-Rhyne yet?” Florence said he hadn’t but noted he had heard the school had a “pretty good safety.” Aldridge raved about Dugger, and sure enough the Seahawks booked a trip.

During the visit, Dugger delivered.

“Kyle looked great,” Cole said. “He was probably 225 pounds at that time, maybe 220, and then he ran a 4.4 twice for that scout. At 220 pounds. Once he ran that time, that just verified he’s legit.”

Scouts started filtering through Hickory on a daily basis. All 32 teams visited at least once. Practices often had multiple scouts in attendance, and some general managers even came by. The phone rang constantly for interviews and meetings.

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“What we had seen of him, now a lot the National Football League was starting to see it,” Cole said. “Everything was panning out. The film matched his in-person. When he passed the eyeball test, being able to run a good 40 time at the size he’s at, it was really a no-brainer after that, like, ‘We’ve got to really start investigating this young man.’ ”

Kyle Dugger (left) left a lasting impression on several teams — including the Patriots — at the 2020 Senior Bowl.Butch Dill/Associated Press

The Senior Bowl only made Dugger’s case stronger. He was the only Division 2 player invited to participate and made the most of his time, showing off his explosiveness, football IQ, and NFL-ready body with long arms and huge hands.

“I think the Senior Bowl really helped Kyle,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said after the draft. “There, 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.”

When the draft came around, Lenoir-Rhyne’s staff thought the Bills were going to draft Dugger, having shown the most interest. The Steelers and Panthers were also possibilities based on the amount of contact.

The Patriots had not tipped their hand.

“We might have seen them once or twice, but they weren’t heavy,” Cole recalled. “It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, the Patriots have been here eight or nine times.’ We had seen teams multiple, multiple times, but not the Patriots. I had no clue.”

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“I want it to be known," Devin McCourty said, "It’ll be good to get Dugg back."Steven Senne/Associated Press

The Bills had the 54th pick, while the Steelers had the 49th and the Panthers the 38th. But the Patriots snagged Dugger at 37 after trading out of the first round the day before.

“When I heard my man’s name called, I was doing some work on my computer, which was sitting in my lap,” Cole said. “I jumped up and I’m glad my laptop didn’t break. It was a very exciting moment.”

Now that he’s in the NFL, Dugger’s mind-set seemingly hasn’t changed.

“He has a vision and a plan of what he sees himself [as] and what he wants,” Cole said. “We talked about always playing with a chip on your shoulder. I told Kyle, ‘You don’t have a chip. You have a boulder. You’ve got to understand that. That boulder has to stay there. You can’t be hungry, you have to be starving through your whole career.’ I think he’s really taken grasp of that.”

Since 2009, the Patriots have taken a defensive back in the second round nine times. Only one — Patrick Chung — played a meaningful role for the Patriots, spending 10 seasons in New England and winning three Super Bowls.

But Dugger? He sure seems like a player that is going to stick around, too.


Nicole Yang can be reached at nicole.yang@globe.com.