FOXBORO, Mass. — Watching Kyle Dugger this week, you never would have guessed he plied his trade in the South Atlantic Conference last season.
That’s a Division II league, home to schools like Mars Hill, Tusculum and Dugger’s alma mater, Lenior-Rhyne.
Jumping straight from that level of competition to the NFL — without the benefit of a single spring practice or walkthrough, no less — can’t be an easy adjustment. But Dugger, New England’s top pick in the 2020 NFL Draft (37th overall), has looked the part thus far.
The 6-foot-2, 220-pound safety has been active, involved and impressive through the first two padded practices of Patriots training camp.
“Dugg’s been really good,” veteran safety Devin McCourty said after Tuesday’s practice. “I think any time you can get in there with a guy and just play together and talk to him and learn how we play and play off each other, it’s been really good. And he’s got a chance to play with all of our safeties so far. So we’ve just gotta keep building that.”
Lauded for his athleticism coming out of the draft, Dugger has the versatility to play multiple spots in the Patriots’ defense, lining up closer to the line of scrimmage and as a centerfield defender.
It was from the latter alignment that he made one of the standout defensive plays of Tuesday’s session, ranging to his right to intercept a Jarrett Stidham deep ball intended for wideout Damiere Byrd.
“I think he does a good job just being around the football,” McCourty said. “Whether he’s down, whether he’s on the back end, he’s done a good job of that so far.”
Dugger, who’s also returning kicks, has fared well in the meeting room, too, according to McCourty.
“I would say him and (undrafted rookie cornerback) Myles (Bryant) in our room, the two new defensive backs … you know, we try to quiz ’em,” the longtime Patriots co-captain said. “We try to ask them questions to catch ’em off guard. They answer ’em. You can tell they’re both going home and studying at night, making sure that they’re prepared. I think when you see that, you see guys doing that, it shows up on the field.
“Obviously they’re far from perfect. But it shows up the times that they get things right. Sometimes it’s some of the more advanced stuff, but you can tell they’re putting in the work, they’re trying to learn from everybody in our meeting rooms, whether it’s myself, whether it’s J-Mac (Jason McCourty) or Steph (Stephon Gilmore), trying to give them a coaching point from our experience. You can tell those guys are hanging on to it like a sponge.”
The Patriots lost two of their top three safeties this offseason when Duron Harmon was traded to the Detroit Lions and Patrick Chung opted out. With McCourty still holding down his spot, those two holes will be filled by some combination of Dugger, Adrian Phillips, Terrence Brooks, Cody Davis and potentially a cornerback convert like Jonathan Jones or Joejuan Williams.
Entering camp, it was unclear whether Dugger would be ready to compete for a prominent defensive role. Already, the answer is clear: Yes, he is.
Thumbnail photo via New England Patriots