NFL Draft 2020: Small-school prospect Kyle Dugger making the most of new pre-draft reality
Here's how the Lenoir-Rhyne safety is dealing with COVID-19 restrictions, which tilt the advantage toward known quantities
At this point, eight virtual meetings in, Kyle Dugger has it figured out.
The safety, ranked No. 65 in CBSSports.com's top 100 prospects for the 2020 NFL Draft, has, like many, become a whiz at online meetings. FaceTime, Zoom and Skype, he's done them all with a quarter of NFL teams.
"I had to reschedule one because the first Zoom meeting I had I couldn't figure out how to get my audio working," says Dugger, whose technological resume includes engineering a laser-timed 40-yard dash timer for a physics research project. "I tried to go on my phone and the WiFi connection at my house was way too slow. It wasn't even close to good enough."
Dugger eventually went to a friend's apartment and bummed his internet. Since then, he's gotten the audio working and now conducts all his interviews with NFL teams on his phone.
The global pandemic related to COVID-19 has led the NFL to prohibit teams from bringing in free agents and, in Dugger's case, draft prospects. His March 27 pro day was canceled. His private workouts with 10 NFL teams vanished.
The pre-draft process now figures to tilt in the direction of known quantities from major schools. Scouts and general managers have been visiting Power-5 schools for years, but few ever found their way to Lenoir-Rhyne University.
Dugger's school, one of only three that extended him an offer out of Georgia's Whitewater High, is located about an hour northwest of Charlotte, N.C., in Hickory, and has an enrollment of less than 3,000 students. Come late April, Dugger will be the first player drafted from Lenoir-Rhyne since 2000, and he surely will be the highest-drafted player ever from the Division-II school once he goes in the top three rounds.
Dugger earned the Cliff Harris Award last season as the nation's best small school player and earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl. In February, he attended the NFL scouting combine as the only D-II player there. There he had the largest hands, longest arms, longest wingspan, best vertical and sixth-fastest 40-yard dash (4.49 seconds) of all safeties.
Fortunately for Dugger, he's been able to perform in front of NFL scouts at the two premier spots in the pre-draft process. But the weeks leading up to the draft were still vital for him as a small-school prospect.
"A lot of teams I have communicated with who have seen me and paid attention to what I've done so far have said that it's not going to hurt me as much," Dugger says. "It's more so for the teams who have been overlooking me this whole time and not really paying attention to what I've been doing. More so for those teams, it'd be like a first look for them. Obviously every team wasn't on me at the combine and Senior Bowl, so those things now kind of hurt me."
Around this time last year, Dugger had a workout on campus that had just one NFL team representative. He ran a 4.41-second 40 and word began to get out about the safety between the Appalachian Mountains and Charlotte. Representatives from all 32 teams visited campus at some point during his senior season, from area scouts to Panthers GM Marty Hurney. The Bills, headed now by former Carolina assistant GM Brandon Beane, sent multiple reps to Lenoir-Rhyne.
At 6-foot-1 and 217 pounds, Dugger finished his career with 10 picks, 36 pass breakups, six forced fumbles, two blocked kicks and, as a returner, six punt returns for touchdowns. He led the Bears to a 13-1 season in 2019.
After showing he could hold his own against major college football competition at the Senior Bowl, Dugger went to the combine, where he met with 14 teams formally and 26 teams total. He says the Bills, Browns and Panthers —teams that got in on the ground floor with Dugger and have kept tabs for the past year — have shown him the most interest.
He played deep quarter safety most of the time for the Bears, and he played in the box and around the line of scrimmage at the Senior Bowl. Dugger projects more as a strong safety with his size, and one NFL scout told CBS Sports that Dugger could play a hybrid outside linebacker in a sub-package.
Duggar had hoped to use his private workouts as a way to prove he's not just a sub-package player but an every-down safety. Now he hopes he can communicate that via his phone's camera while also displaying his personality. That becomes a necessity due to his age; Dugger turned 24 two weeks ago.
"For some teams they see it as a positive in a way that it's not going to take long for me to get it and cope with the lifestyle and things. Also they're going to see that as a positive for me to not take long to mentally get the game down," Dugger says. "Some teams see it as a limit on potential. They don't think I might can do much more than I can do. Or whatever I do well they don't think I can expand on my game.
"I think some teams see it as just maybe not having a lot of time to develop. If they don't see me as a good player now, then they kind of don't see it happening in their eyes."
The NFL draft is all about projections, and with all the restrictions placed on teams this draft season, it's reasonable to think teams would be less risk-averse at the top of the draft. Perhaps a team, under current circumstances, would be more inclined to take a 24-year-old safety and returner than a 20-year-old underclassman?
Dugger had been staying in a hotel in Atlanta training at a local gym when it closed due to COVID-19 concerns. He moved back to his parents' home, where his dad already had a weight set. He lifts three times a week, runs a mile on Wednesdays, jumps rope Mondays and Wednesdays and does field work throughout the week at his old high school or in the backyard.
NFL teams have reached out to Dugger the past few weeks on Mondays to set up interview times for that week. This Monday, he'll be waiting on the calls.
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