The Patriots love grinders; players who work while nobody is watching and compete until their goals are met rather than listening to detractors tell them their aspirations are too lofty.
Bill Belichick is one too, setting the standard for his team, and now Belichick might’ve found the ultimate grinder with the Patriots’ first selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, safety Kyle Dugger.
Dugger was a “no star” recruit coming out of Whitewater High School in Fayetteville, Georgia, where he was a two-sport athlete as a basketball and football star for the Wildcats.
Entering High School as a 5-foot-7, 140-pound teenager, Dugger didn’t get called up to varsity until his junior season in football, playing both wide receiver and cornerback.
Due to his size and a lack of tape, Dugger was a 5-foot-11, 170-pound senior with only two college offers on the table: Reinhardt University and Lenoir-Rhyne.
By the time he grinded to a second-round selection in the 2020 NFL Draft, everything had changed, from his physical stature to his position on the field.
Dugger committed to Lenoir-Rhyne, grew several inches, and rebuilt his body, gaining over 50 pounds during his time in Hickory, North Carolina.
Kyle Dugger is a FS prospect in the 2020 draft class out of Lenoir-Rhyne.
— Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb) April 23, 2020
After five seasons playing for the Bears, including a redshirt year, Dugger measured in at 6-foot-1, 217 pounds at the combine in Indianapolis. He then ran a 4.49-second 40-yard dash with a 42-inch vertical and a broad jump of over 11 feet, testing in the 99th percentile as one of the ten best athletes in Indy.
The Lenoir-Rhyne coaching staff knew Dugger had the makings of an NFL draftee, and helped him to reach his potential despite the level of competition.
“He’s a great young man. One of the best guys I ever coached as far as a person, and he’s the ultimate competitor. If you tell him he can’t do something, he’s going to work to prove you wrong,” Dugger’s former position coach, David Cole, told CLNS Media in an exclusive interview.
“He was probably about 5-foot-8, 5-foot-7, around that, going into his junior year of High School. He was a late bloomer as far as physical development, and that slowed down his development on the football field as well. He wasn’t a full-time starter until his senior year. His High School tape was solid, but he wasn’t jumping off the screen at you.”
Cole, who coached Dugger for three seasons, detailed a process that included four different defensive coordinators and a position switch after a rapid height and weight gain. Change became the norm for the new Patriot.
Dugger became a dominant free safety in the Bears’ ever-changing defense with ten career interceptions, 152 solo tackles, and six career punt returns for touchdowns.
But Dugger also put the time in during the week at practice and in the film room to improve at his craft.
“He was one of those people that always had his notes turned in first. He always had his little black notebook out ready to take notes, and if I asked a question going back to his notes, he was always the first guy to get up on the board,” Cole explained.
“We always logged who was watching film the longest, and he did a lot of studying on his own as well too. Doing extra film study outside of what was the standard in our room.”
“We talked about how you have to be mentally sharp because at the next level everyone is physically sharp, so what’s going to set you apart from the rest? That’s going to be being able to think and process and know the game so you can process faster and play faster. He really bought into that.”
Cole said there were immediate returns when the coaching staff decided to move Dugger from cornerback to safety in his redshirt sophomore campaign.
“He was a corner in High School, and he was a corner his first two years at Lenoir-Rhyne. When we got there, he thought of himself as Richard Sherman, Jalen Ramsey, Patrick Peterson, he fancied himself like that. He ended up buying into it and becoming really good at [playing safety],” Cole said.
During his first week of practice at free safety, Dugger was already making impressive interceptions ranging over the top to defend passes in centerfield.
“When we changed him from corner to safety, he was in the middle of the field, and I think they ran verticals. The ball was going to the outside receiver, and he was playing the middle third, deep post safety, and he went and got that thing. He was a little bit late, but you saw the speed and athleticism. He went and got the ball, kept his feet in bounds, and took the ball back up the sideline. After that, I knew he was going to be a special guy.”
The Lenoir-Rhyne coaching staff pushed Dugger to live up to his potential rather than sinking to the level of competition.
“The thing with practice sometimes too was that Kyle was so more physically gifted than the guys he was playing against, practicing against, we had to focus on a goal that you’re trying to get to a level where everyone is going to be like you,” Cole continued.
“Being focused and practicing full tilt, 100 miles per hour, each play, each practice play, will get you ready for the next level. We focused on that because, at times, for any guy, when you’re that much better than everyone else, you can sometimes play to your competition.”
Dugger took things from practice and the film room to the game field shortly after making the switch to safety, and the highlight-reel interceptions and interception returns followed.
“His junior year against Wingate, he had an interception off of a tipped pass that he took 97 or 98 yards. He hurdled a guy, one guy had the angle on him, and he just stopped on a dime, and the dude went flying past into the sideline, and he took it in for a touchdown,” said Cole, reminiscing about Dugger’s best plays.
The new Pats safety also changed the momentum of games with his outstanding punt return skills, averaging nearly 14 yards per return to go along with his six career touchdowns.
What started as an experiment after a tip from a coaching holdover from the last regime quickly became one of the Bears’ top sources of explosive plays.
“We got there, and we were looking for a punt returner. There was a guy on our staff at the time named Akida Banks who was there his freshman year and was like ‘Dug can catch punts, but the previous coach made him nervous,’” Cole told CLNS. “I was the special teams coordinator too, so I was like, ‘alright, we’ll give it a try’ and see if he’s comfortable with it. Talked to him about a couple of things, coached him up on a couple of things, and that’s all she wrote.”
“The punt returns were amazing. He had two punt returners that shifted the momentum of the game against Newberry. We were down 14 or 21-zero, and he took two back, and it shifted the momentum of the game.”
On defense, Cole felt that at least one attribute of Dugger’s came will translate immediately to the next level. But it’s not in the box guarding tight ends as you might expect.
Kyle Dugger flies around the field as his combine workout would suggest. Plays like this one show you that. Ranges over from CF on the double-pass to make a play on the ball. High-point skills on display to break up the pass at the catch point. #Patriots #NFLDraft pic.twitter.com/XaIor1xScF
— Evan Lazar (@ezlazar) April 8, 2020
“Playing in the middle of the field,” Cole answered. “We used to watch a lot of Earl Thomas tape. I think that was one of his strong suits, being able to range and cover ground.”
“When we first got to LR, we were more Patriots style, Nick Saban style, a little Pete Carroll style where we were playing a lot of cover-three, middle of the field closed deep safety, and that’s when we saw a guy that can range. He played a little in the box, but he was a deep safety [roughly] 90 percent of the time.”
The Lenoir-Rhyne staff took a very Patriot-like approach by having their safeties do multiple things depending on matchups.
“Like coach Belichick does with Patrick Chung and the Seahawks used to do with Kam Chancellor, we wanted to be multiple kind of like the Patriots to where you can see guys evolve from playing corner to safety or safety to down in the box,” he said.
“There was a big emphasis on being able to learn multiple positions and knowing where everybody played, so knowing where your help came from or where your help is going to be. And just in case anybody got hurt, we always talked about going back to play corner again, so it was a big emphasis on that.”
Dugger went through four different coordinators, and never really got the chance to hone in on the details of any coverage system. But it also prepared him to play multiple coverages as will be the expectation in New England.
Lenoir-Rhyne went from a post-safety heavy defense to two split-safety quarters system later on in Dugger’s career, but even those quarters systems had differences too.
“He did the best he could [with the coordinator changes],” said Cole. “It’s tough when you don’t get to know the in’s and out’s of a defense. Defensively, a coordinator might change with coach Belichick, but they still run coach Belichick’s scheme, so nothing really changes.”
“Our first system when he got here, he was a middle of the field safety, but we would roll him into the box. In the cover-three scheme and the cover-one scheme, those top safeties can insert themselves as linebackers in spots.”
“Now his junior and senior year, they were both quarters-based schemes, but two different quarters systems. In his junior year, he was playing robber safety most of the time and playing the middle of the field. Then his senior year it was a little more multiple in the quarters scheme but totally different in that robber wasn’t our first coverage. It was more true quarters,” Cole explained.
With the Patriots, part of Dugger’s role will resemble what he did at Lenoir-Rhyne as a deep safety inserting himself in the box.
But the expectation is that he’ll start more in the box and over the slot as a tight end stopper, something he didn’t do much due to the lack of skilled slot receivers at the Division II level.
“The one knock I used to tell scouts that came to watch him was that the one thing you don’t get at DII because of the offenses, he didn’t get to cover that shifty slot [receiver] all the time,” Cole continued.
“I definitely think he has that ability. I don’t think he’ll have a problem. But it’s just him getting used to the speed of it. I think him going to the Senior Bowl answered a lot of questions about if he could do it, I knew he could do it, but how long will he take to get acclimated to the speed of a tight end? He did a great job.”
In front of Belichick and Patriots Director of Player Personnel Nick Caserio, Dugger shut down a group of tight ends that included mid-round picks Josiah Deguara, Adam Trautman, Brycen Hopkins and Mackey Award winner Harrison Bryant in Mobile.
Although he was relatively unknown to the masses at the time, NFL teams were well aware of the DII safety with ridiculous athleticism and cover skills. But the Pats, as always, played it close to the vest.
Caserio said the Patriots discovered Dugger during spring scouting before the 2019 season and then sent scouts to Hickory in the fall.
After seeing him at the Senior Bowl, Belichick saw enough to convince himself that Dugger was a worthy second-rounder, and the team went into day two with him on a shortlist of top targets.
The Lenoir-Rhyne staff was surprised to see Dugger end up in New England. After showing interest early on, the Pats hid their intentions by avoiding contact with Cole and the LR staff.
“The surprising part was nobody had called myself or our pro liaison in a while,” Cole said. “We didn’t know the Patriots had as strong of an interest as they did, so it was surprising that they took him. I knew he was going to get taken that day, but it was surprising. I’m super ecstatic that they did, but I had no contact with them probably in the last couple of weeks [leading up to the draft].”
Despite a unique background, Dugger is well prepared to handle the Patriots defense after learning multiple coverage systems with several different roles due to the coordinator changes in college.
Cole used the word “special” nearly a dozen times to describe Dugger in a 15-minute interview, and it was undoubtedly special circumstances that led the 170-pound High School senior here.
After a football career out of the limelight, waiting for someone to notice him, Bill Belichick picked up the phone and made Dugger the 37th overall selection in the 2020 NFL Draft.