Every NFL team has been through Hickory, N.C., to see Lenoir-Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger. So how did he get ignored by every major school in the country?
By Chase Goodbread | Published Nov. 5, 2019
HICKORY, N.C. -- 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.
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 pit stops 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."