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Super sleeper: D-II safety Kyle Dugger squarely on NFL's radar

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HICKORY, N.C. -- Finally, he's found.

Kyle Dugger has been here six years, hidden behind Mount Mitchell, the tallest peak along the Appalachian mountain line at nearly 7,000 feet. Hidden in the anonymity of Division II football at Lenoir-Rhyne University.

Waiting.

NFL clubs know where to look for the best safety talent in the NFL draft; powerhouse programs that dub themselves DBU -- Florida, Ohio State and LSU, for instance -- are easy places to start. East of Mount Mitchell and tucked fewer than 50 miles from the foot of the Appalachian range, Hickory, North Carolina (pop. 40,925), simply isn't part of the circuit. Despite the NFL's vast scouting resources and turn-every-stone approach to finding draftable talent, the Dugger discovery still hadn't been made as late as five years into a six-year college career.

Scouts traveling into North Carolina take Interstate 40 to the state's natural pitstops for draft-worthy talent -- UNC, N.C. State, Duke and Wake Forest. They've never had reason to pull off at Exit 126 in Hickory for anything other than gas. But this year, Exit 126 is finally taking them to Lenoir-Rhyne.

With school buildings that share streets with neighborhoods, Lenoir-Rhyne's campus setting blends into Hickory with remarkable ease. Off one corner of the Rhyne Quad, on 8th Street, the Lutheran school's St. Andrew's church draws a mix of students and residents. Off another, Lenoir-Rhyne-affiliated University Christian serves as one of only a few high schools in the area. Even the Greek system sinks into the surroundings -- fraternities and sororities are in actual homes, distinguishable from family dwellings only by their letter displays, and nothing like the palaces that Greek housing has become at big state schools.

Everything blends, it seems, except Dugger.

He looks out of place pulverizing smallish ball carriers like rag dolls. With sub-4.5 speed on a 6-foot-2, 220-pound frame, on a football field of Division II competition, he stands out like a Pop Warner ringer with a forged birth certificate.

He doesn't belong here, and everyone knows it.

"You get a guy at a small college like him once every 20 years, maybe," said Lenoir-Rhyne's second-year head coach Drew Cronic. "If he was at Clemson, at Georgia, at Alabama, one of those places, he'd be playing. He'd be starting."

* * * * *


From childhood, the clues that Kyle Dugger would develop into a special athlete laid around like puzzle pieces; disconnected, turned the wrong way, awaiting assembly.

The first was in Fort Valley, Georgia -- about 100 miles south of Atlanta and 80 miles south of Dugger's hometown of Fayetteville -- in the Fort Valley State Athletic Hall of Fame. Kimberly Dugger was inducted in 2009 after a record-breaking basketball career at FVSU. Playing power forward, she had scholarship offers from more than 40 schools, and even Tennessee's legendary coach, Pat Summitt, once sat in the Fort Valley High gym to scout her. But she stayed home so her parents could see her play at FVSU without traveling. She reluctantly confirms a family legend that, at just 5-foot-11, she could dunk.

"Just barely," she said. "But, yes."

Suffice to say, Dugger came by his 40-inch vertical leap honestly.

Another clue also was hereditary: Dugger's older brother, Patrick, was blessed with a massive frame. He grew to 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds, played small-college basketball at LaGrange (Georgia), and went on to a pro career overseas. Kyle, by contrast, was tiny -- just 5-6 and 140 pounds upon entering high school.

A third clue looked like anything but a positive sign. In fact, the lone physical trait he had going for him as a child was less of an asset than it was awkward. His arms were unusually long -- almost embarrassingly so -- and his hands as a youngster were the size of a grown man's, long before the rest of his body was. With his hands at his side, Kimberly said, Kyle's fingertips reached his knees.

"I said, 'God, please don't let him stay like this,' " she recalled.

It made Kyle a target for teasing more than it foretold anything about his physical stature. Dugger recalls a photo taken from his youth baseball days in which he tags out a sliding baserunner without having to bend at the waist.

"I was out of proportion, and I did feel weird about it," he said. "My feet grew really big, too, and I was still short, so I'd trip over my own feet sometimes."

Dugger overcame that clumsiness well enough to excel as a basketball player, but he wasn't a full-time starter in high school football until his senior year at Fayetteville's Whitewater High. He was still undersized at 5-foot-11, 170 pounds, and his hopes of being a college athlete were flatlining. In pitching Dugger's scholarship worthiness to Lenoir-Rhyne, Whitewater offensive coordinator Wes Hardin connected the puzzle pieces well enough to intrigue the only scholarship program to even remotely show interest.

"I just told them that with him coming from such an athletic family, with a 6-foot-6 brother and the long arms he had, that he had a late growth spurt in him somewhere," Hardin said.

* * * * *


Four inches of snow crunched under Dugger's feet, enough to soak into his sneakers if he didn't lift his legs with a trudge. He walked alone and sized up Lenoir-Rhyne and Hickory the best he could. Just a couple of weeks earlier, he'd never heard of either.

But if he ever wanted to play another down of football, it would have to be here, at Moretz Stadium, capacity 8,500 -- barely bigger than the stadium he played in back at Whitewater High. National Signing Day was just a couple of weeks away, and he was making his one official visit to his only college football option. That night, the interim remains of a Bears coaching staff that had just departed for The Citadel introduced him to a few players in a dorm room who left him there alone shortly after. He passed the rest of the night playing video games by himself and drove back to Fayetteville the next morning. It wasn't exactly the red-carpet sales pitch he knew recruits at bigger schools were getting.

While those recruits were swooned by household-name head coaches, Dugger was recruited by a graduate assistant -- a practice not even permitted at the Division I level. Those recruits spent full weekends on palatial campuses, arriving in packs and building friendships with future teammates, with their every step escorted and planned by the school to make the splashiest impression possible -- wining, dining, wheeling and dealing.

Dugger showed up on a Wednesday as the only recruit on campus and was on his way back home in less than 24 hours. The Lenoir-Ryne graduate assistant who recruited him, Jake Copeland, wondered if Dugger would rather play out his senior season in basketball and hope for a better offer in that sport.

"I really wasn't sure we were going to get him," Copeland said. "He wouldn't come on a weekend because he wouldn't miss a high school basketball game, so we couldn't give him the same experience that a weekend visit might be."

FBS coaches aren't allowed to put recruits through any physical testing during an official visit, but it's permitted at the D-II level. Copeland took Dugger to the weight room and, as other players went through offseason workouts, measured his vertical and broad jumps: 38 inches and 10 feet, 6 inches, respectively.

"At the D-II level, especially for a recruit, that's freakish," said Copeland, now on staff at Jacksonville University. "We just don't see that at this level."

A couple of weeks earlier, on Jan. 10, 2014, Copeland had sat in the Whitewater High basketball gym and watched Dugger steal a pass, dribble the length of the floor, and elevate over a defender for a tomahawk dunk that shook the rim. He turned to Hardin, who had invited him there to watch Dugger, and gave a thumbs-up. Between his obvious explosiveness as a basketball player, and Copeland's belief in the growth spurt Hardin predicted, the graduate assistant was sold.

This is what Division II recruiting looks like.

While powerhouse programs have their recruiting classes mostly finished months in advance of signing day, the Lenoir-Rhynes of college football often scramble late, sorting through the Kyle Duggers -- the undersized, the underappreciated, the unwanted. Their resources are limited, but so are the options for many of the players they sign. Wearing a Lenoir-Rhyne sweatshirt following a morning workout, Dugger sat in the newly constructed Bears Club Pavilion, a hospitality area for boosters, and reflected on how the school first struck him.

"I was the only recruit here when I visited. I think school was on break, so it was an empty campus," Dugger said. "I thought it was a weird situation, but I knew they wanted me, and I knew I wanted to play football."

A variety of factors conspired to keep Dugger's profile as a football recruit practically non-existent. He was only 5-11 and 170 pounds as a high school senior, nowhere near the 220-pound monster that now roams the Lenoir-Rhyne secondary like a heat-seeking missile.

"You could go down the street and get a bigger corner with a lot of the same skills, and most of these college coaches can't afford to take a chance on a guy with the potential to get bigger," said Rashad Muhyee, Dugger's position coach at Whitewater. "There's no more five-year plan. It's a business. You've got two recruiting classes to win, and that's it."

Dugger was only a part-time starter as a high school junior, a make-or-break season for recruits because FBS coaches, who now focus on younger-aged players, rarely evaluate senior-season tape. Mike Farrell, the national recruiting director for Rivals.com, said it's been a decade or more since top colleges looked seriously at senior tape, citing former Boston College star and NFL first-round pick B.J. Raji as a rare exception.

"(Raji's) senior tape blew up somehow and didn't come across our desks until January (2004), right before signing day," Farrell said. "But that was forever ago."

Until it was too late, Dugger also didn't participate in college summer camps, which have evolved to become the primary generator for scholarship offers at top schools. As a late-bloomer at the high school level, Whitewater didn't include him in its camp circuit until the summer before his senior year, by which time most schools had already settled on their recruiting targets. He attended one at Mississippi State and stumbled on his oversized feet when the Bulldogs clocked him in the 40-yard dash.

"It was awful. It went terrible," Dugger recalled. "We were the last team to show up, and I was the last guy to run, and I slipped in front of everybody."

* * * * *


After redshirting in 2014, Dugger started at cornerback for Lenoir-Rhyne in 2015 and was the team's best defensive back by season's end. As college coaches typically do, then-coach Ian Shields called each player into his office to conduct exit interviews, to discuss their standing in the program entering the offseason.

"I remember telling him that his teammates were mostly there playing ball for an education, that they would go on to be businessmen, and have regular jobs," Shields said. "But you're playing ball to play more ball. You have the ability to be an NFL player. He got bright-eyed. I'm not sure he realized the faith I had in him until then."

But three years after Shields first put the seed in Dugger's mind that he had an NFL future, the safety was still wondering whether that projection would ever come to fruition. Mount Mitchell never looked taller.

By the time Seattle Seahawks scout Ryan Florence discovered Dugger in March of this year, the safety���s arms were still extremely long, measuring 33 1/8 inches, and his hands checked out huge, as well: 10 1/4 inches. But this time, those measurements were considered assets. Only one safety at the 2019 Scouting Combine had longer arms (Donovan Wilson, 33 3/8), and none had bigger hands.

And his body had finally caught up.

At nearly 6-foot-1 and 218 pounds, he was clocked by Florence at 4.41 and 4.45 in the 40-yard dash. Had Florence asked, Dugger could also have shown him an eye-opening broad jump of 10 feet, 11 inches. Florence placed a draftable grade on him, and ever since a parade of scouting attention has blazed a rarely traveled path through Hickory. All 32 NFL clubs have stopped by Lenoir-Rhyne to evaluate the potential top-100 selection, many of them more than once, and with a combination of area and higher-level scouts. Nine NFL directors of college scouting had come through, along with four directors of player personnel, and one general manager (Marty Hurney of the Carolina Panthers). One scouting department from an AFC East team has been through Hickory five times.

"We've not had this kind of attention here, and I'm learning a lot myself," said Lenoir-Rhyne assistant coach Tim Foster, who also serves as the program's liaison to scouts.

A number of those scouts have projected Dugger -- with a frame to easily add more weight -- as an outside linebacker who could blanket tight ends and running backs on third down. According to an AFC scout who has been through Hickory, Dugger's return skills will easily translate to the NFL, as well.

"I think of him more like a Josh Cribbs-type returner," the scout said. "He'll develop into a box safety or an outside linebacker, but as a returner, I think he's special, because he's strong enough to break the first tackle, stick his foot in the ground and get upfield."

Multiple NFL clubs had requested Dugger for the Senior Bowl, but it was already an easy decision for executive director Jim Nagy, who considers Dugger one of the top five small-school players in the 2020 draft class. Nagy said he expects clubs to request that Dugger try his hand in linebacker drills in practice at the annual all-star game in Mobile, Alabama.

Dugger has completed 76 interviews with NFL scouts, who now know how to make the stop in Hickory. At least one NFL club rep shows up routinely for practices and games, watching everything Dugger does from how seriously he takes the team stretch to how well he ranges to deep throws to the sideline.

The attention comes as no surprise to Cronic. The Lenoir-Rhyne coach, who played at Georgia from 1995 to '98, said the only teammate he had whom he considers a better college player than Dugger was Pro Football Hall of Famer Champ Bailey. The rest of that list includes players like Hines Ward, and former first-round picks Richard Seymour, Robert Edwards, Marcus Stroud and Matt Stinchcomb.

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An NFL team hasn't selected a Division II safety in the first three rounds of a draft since the Chicago Bears took Abilene Christian's Danieal Manning at No. 42 overall in 2006.

Dugger's quest to end that drought is, at last, at hand. Finding him took time, but the process by which the NFL unearths hidden gems like Dugger eventually delivered. Nearly every team in the NFL subscribes to one of two scouting services, Blesto and National Football Scouting, that perform extensive legwork in discovering draft-worthy talent at the small-school level. Clubs designate a contributing scout, who evaluates the small-school talent in a particular region of the country, and the scouting services then disseminate the findings to every NFL club in the group.

From that point on, it's up to the individual clubs to follow up. It's pool scouting, essentially, and it's served the NFL well for decades. According to Pro Football Hall of Famer and longtime Cowboys scouting executive Gil Brandt, the concept of sharing intel began in 1962 with an organization called Troika, consisting of the Cowboys, 49ers and Rams. Troika pooled computer data as opposed to data from traveling scouts, but it was a forerunner for scouting departments working together.

"This has been a way of scouting back to 1960. It hasn't changed in 60 years," Brandt said.

Typically, only seniors at such small schools get a look -- a Blesto rep came through Lenoir-Rhyne in 2018 to grade senior WR T.J. Smith but told Foster he'd look at the junior class, including Dugger, the following year. But it was the Seahawks' Florence, representing NFS, who eventually sparked league interest in Dugger with an evaluation on March 20. Florence took his measurements and clocked him at 4.41, leading to a draft grade that was distributed to other NFS clubs. He then advised Foster to get Dugger's game tapes uploaded to what's known as the dub center, which is operated by NFL Films and serves as a hub for all NFL clubs to evaluate a prospect's film.

"Ryan was a huge help," Foster said. "Once we got those tapes uploaded the phone started ringing with scouts from everywhere."

Obtaining Dugger's tape is one thing; judging that tape with proper perspective is another.

While Dugger has verified physical traits that make him a highly intriguing prospect, scouts prefer to evaluate prospects against elite college competition -- NFL-bound competition if possible - and the Division II schedule Lenoir-Rhyne plays is a far cry from either.

"If there's a big D-I team on the schedule, that's the first tape you look at," said an AFC scout. "If it's a DB, you want to find the tape of him playing against the best quarterback or wide receiver on the schedule. This kid's problem is, he doesn't really have that tape that puts him head-to-head against another draftable guy. So, it's more of a projection."

In March, Lenoir-Rhyne will host its first pro day. Typically, Division II players reach out to bigger schools nearby and request to participate in a pro day where they'll be seen by the largest possible contingent of scouts. Dugger would certainly have options -- UNC or Duke are easy I-40 drives from Lenoir-Rhyne. But Dugger shouldn't need that exposure, Foster said, because the interest in him is strong enough to drive scouts to Lenoir-Rhyne like never before. The highest-drafted player in Lenoir-Rhyne history -- John Milem in 2000 by the San Francisco 49ers -- was just a fifth-round pick.

"This is a new horizon for us here," Foster said.

* * * * *


On Sept. 21, Newberry College invaded Hickory.

Lenoir-Rhyne, the South Atlantic Conference's defending champion, drew 6,046 fans for its SAC opener. A decent parking spot could be found as close to kickoff as one cares to arrive. There's a distinctive high school feel to the game-day atmosphere, from the size of the crowd to the local, black-and-white ads that fill the game program, and the sponsorship signage that rings a retaining wall around half the field opposite an open-ended, seatless East end zone.

Dugger's face is everywhere -- from season tickets to game programs, from Lenoir-Rhyne's official athletic web site to the wall in the Bears' new weight room.

On the North side of Moretz Stadium, a smattering of tailgaters pitched their tents right on the team's practice field; on the South end, a single fan's radio at high volume blares '70s music from WSVM, the official radio home of the Bears, to the entire parking lot in the hours before a game broadcast. They've come to see the home Bears tangle with the Wolves of Newberry, another school off the path amid a conference full of them: Coker University, Queens University of Charlotte, Limestone College.

Dugger looks like a giant, flanked in the Lenoir-Rhyne secondary by two 5-foot-9 corners, one of them 155 pounds. If he couldn't run so well, he'd be big enough to play defensive end at this level.

He makes five tackles on the night, a 34-17 Lenoir-Rhyne win. The first saves a touchdown as he tracks down a wide receiver in a footrace along the visiting sideline. The other four he makes with downhill authority, leveling Newberry ball-carriers with enough pop to drive them backward on contact. He blocks a field goal in the second half, blowing past edge protection with an explosive first step; so explosive, he was flagged for being off-sides.

For this game, the Detroit Lions are in town to give Dugger another close look.

At last, he's arrived.

"It's motivating to have scouts coming here to see me," Dugger said. "It brings things more into perspective. Now what I've been chasing is finally coming to light, I feel like it's go-time."

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