BOSTON (CBS) — Over the last week, Patriots fans have learned quite a bit about Kyle Dugger, New England’s first pick in the 2020 NFL Draft. They’ve seen him deliver some truly massive hits and make some pretty incredible kick returns, and from everything you hear about the safety, he sounds like he’ll make the perfect Patriots player.
Dugger’s college coach at Lenoir-Rhyne, Drew Cronic, would agree. When asked what Patriots fans will love about most about Dugger, Cronic had a hard time pinpointing just one aspect of his game. From the kid’s bone-crunching hits to his work ethic, Dugger sounds like a textbook addition to Bill Belichick’s system.
“Kyle is a really outstanding young man and he is a guy who obviously, especially for our level, was just an unbelievable talent. The kind of guy you get at a Division II school once every 20 years,” Cronic told WBZ-TV’s Dan Roche. “He’s not seeking a lot of attention. Very business-like and no baggage. He’s just a kid who works toward things and is very respectful.”
Cronic scouted Dugger in high school when he was head coach at Reinhardt University, but lost him to Lenoir-Rhyne. When Cronic took over the Bears program a few years later, he couldn’t believe how much Dugger had grown — both as a football player and with his hulking frame.
“At the time I thought I was going to sneak him out there, and he signed with Lenoir-Rhyne, which was really good for me,” said Cronic. “When I got the head job at Lenoir-Rhyne, I was asking some of the coaches — the secondary coach had him for two years and said ‘we have a kid who is pretty good.’
“It was amazing how much he had changed physically, and he had matured as well,” explained Cronic, who left Lenoir-Rhyne after last season to take the head coaching job at Mercer. “He really had put in a lot of work on his body, so he had a great year in 2018. He was having a great year in 2019 until he got injured in Week 7 with a finger injury. But it was amazing, the transition from the first time I saw him to the next time I saw him. He was pretty impressive looking.”
Dugger was one of the top graders at the NFL Combine, finishing in the 97th percentile in the vertical and broad jumps. And despite his 6-foot-1, 217-pound frame, he was in the 78th percentile in the 40-yard dash. He has massive hands and big shoulders, which let him dominate the Division II opposition he faced in college, both on defense and special teams.
Croncic doesn’t think his former star will have any problems adapting to the NFL, and believes that going against the best players in the world will bring out the best in Dugger.
“People ask me if he can make the transition, and I don’t think there’s any question. I think Kyle is going to improve so much over the next two years, because competition is as big an influence on him as anything,” said Cronic. “At our level, it was kind of easy for him. Now that everyone is like him, I think he’s going to get so much better. I think he’s going to thrive in that environment.”
With veterans Devin McCourty and Patrick Chung locking down the safety spots for the Patriots, there won’t be too much pressure on Dugger to make an immediate impact on the defensive side. That will give the 24-year-old time to learn the New England defense, and as Cronic explained, he’s like a sponge when it comes to studying the game.
“Kyle is a very business-like guy. He would tell you he’s boring,” he said. “But he does the workout we give him and then extra things. He stays out after practice, does things like that. He’s focused, and whatever they give him to work on, he’s going to work on and try to get better. … He’s going to quietly go about his business and get better, and end up being a really good player in the NFL.”
Physically, the only thing that held Dugger back in college was fear from his coaches.
“I had it worked out with him where if we had safeties doing inside runs, I told him not to polish anyone. He was so explosive I didn’t want him killing any of our guys. Because of the explosiveness of his tackles, we told him to be careful,” said Cronic. “Not that he’s trying to be dirty, but he’s so explosive when he hits you. He understood that, and he did what he had to do to get better. During games he would let it loose and waylay you. He can accelerate through it so suddenly. I wouldn’t want to get hit by him, I know that.”
Dugger didn’t get any Division I offers out of high school, which has given him loads of motivation now that he’s about to play in the NFL. Cronic believes that decision is one that many programs now regret.
“He would fit in at Clemson and Alabama. He would be one of their best players,” he said. “That combination of speed and explosion, he can really time up his hips and roll his hips and really play the football. In practice, we’d be doing seven on seven and, I couldn’t get on the quarterback because he was making good decisions. In a game, their throws would be a completion. But with Kyle back there he would gobble everything up. A guy would look like he was open and then he wouldn’t be open, Kyle would cover so much ground back there. He has no problem getting from the middle of the field to the sideline in the blink of an eye.”
Most impressive to Cronic, though, was how Dugger moved on special teams. Returning kicks in the NFL is usually relegated to smaller slot receivers. Dugger breaks that mold.
“It’s unusual for a guy of his size to have a gift in that area. It won’t be a man among boys [in the NFL] like it was for us,” he said. “But he was the best punt returner I ever had. It’s unusual to have a 220-pound punt returner do what he does. …. I would have never punted to him, but a lot of people did.”
Dugger did a bit of everything on the field for the Bears. He recorded 10 interceptions while defending 36 passes in his four years, racking up 237 total tackles — 152 of which were solo tackles. His big hits forced six fumbles. He also returned six kicks during his college days, recording a two-touchdown game in both his junior and senior seasons.
“I think Kyle is going to thrive. You’re going to see him get so much better,” Cronic said of Dugger’s NFL career. “He is a special talent when it comes to speed and jumping ability, size — all of that combination. But he’s also going to be a guy who learns. That, combined with the level of competition, it’s going to bring so much out of him.
“This is a great situation for him and a great situation for the Patriots.”