Lenoir-Rhyne’s football program goes back all the way to 1907, but its players have garnered little interest from NFL teams over the years. In fact, only six prospects from the Division-II school heard their names called in the common AFL-NFL draft between its inception in 1966 and 53 drafts that followed. This year, however, a seventh man joined their ranks when the New England Patriots opted to pick Kyle Dugger with the 37th overall selection.
Dugger has not only earned the distinction of becoming the first Division-II player off the board this year, he is also now officially the highest drafted player in his Lenoir-Rhyne history (an honor that was previously shared by defensive end John Millem and running back Mike Campbell, who were both drafted 150th overall in 1967 and 2000, respectively). Needless to say that the 24-year-old has had quite an exciting Friday night.
“My reaction is hard to explain,” Dugger said when asked to describe his feelings during his introductory conference call with the New England media. “But I’d say probably the closest thing would definitely be Christmas — my first Christmas, I would say. I did know that they were going to have interest in me. I was talking to them a lot during this process, a lot with [Brian] Belichick, and so I did know they were interested in me.”
The Patriots had Dugger on their draft radar early on in the process, with the Senior Bowl an instrumental tool in helping them get a clearer picture of their eventual second-round investment — especially with Lenoir-Rhyne being forced to cancel its pro day workout, originally scheduled for March 27, due to the Coronavirus outbreak. Despite that, however, the team was able to gather enough information on the player to pick him up.
According to Dugger, the Patriots were trying to learn a lot about his character and thoughts on the game during the altered pre-draft process as well as his approach to football and overall personality. The two sides also talked about his potential role on the team: Dugger — “if the opportunity presents itself,” he said — will get a chance to play a big role on special teams, whether as a punt returner or in a different role.
On Friday, however, the focus was on the moment first and foremost.
“It’s huge for me. It’s definitely been a journey with a lot of ups and downs,” Dugger noted about arriving in New England. “It was a long time throughout high school and coming into college that I didn’t see this day as how it is now. It wasn’t in sight like it is now. Just to be able to represent my family and go through adversities and come from them, and to be able play for an organization like this is a huge honor and really an unexplainable feeling.”
While the Patriots showed confidence in the young defensive back by making him their first draft pick this year, Dugger’s road to that point was a rocky one. A no-star recruit out of high school, that did not become a full-time starter until his senior year, he received no offers from FCS-level schools but rather had to make a decision about going to junior college or prep school before accepting his only college offer from Lenoir-Rhyne.
Almost six years after arriving on campus, Dugger pointed out that he still carries a proverbial chip on his shoulders from being a recruiting afterthought out of high school — a chip that has only grown in size since then as he said last week: “It’s definitely grown into a mountain on my shoulders. It’s definitely something that’s going to be permanent. I’m going to carry it throughout my career as long as I have the opportunity to play the game.”
“If I wanted to get better, I would have to take it into my own hands as far as my work ethic, the way I approached myself, how I looked at myself on film, how I critiqued myself,” Dugger said when speaking about his Division-II experience. “I really had to go the extra mile and not just look at who I’m playing against but kind of compare it to what I was trying to get to. It definitely developed a lot of the work ethic and the things that I do off the field, the way I look at film, the detail I look at film with, how I teach myself.”
Now, Dugger will get a chance to develop even further by playing under a Hall of Fame head coach (Bill Belichick) and alongside some of the best safeties of this era: Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung have each won three Super Bowls during their time in New England, and are leaders both on and off the field. As such, they will be instrumental in bringing the youngster up to speed and getting him ready to possibly taker over one day.
“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, how they can do anything you ask of a DB on the football field,” Dugger said. “To be able to learn from guys who have played at a level that high and have done it well for so long, it’s a huge honor. I’m definitely going to be soaking up everything I can from them and just making sure I listen and watch and be on them like a hawk trying to pick up everything I can from those guys.”