Kyle Dugger leads way at NFL Draft; NC’s Big Four players wait until Day 3

The Lenoir-Rhyne defensive back was selected in Round 2 by New England; Panthers take defense with all seven picks

Lenoir Rhyne defensive back Kyle Dugger, left, intercepts a pass intended for Vanderbilt's Jared Pinkney during the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. Dugger was the first player from a North Carolina school drafted when he was picked by the New England Patriots in the second round of the NFL Draft. (Butch Dill / AP Photo)

The calendar might say that it’s April. But for Kyle Dugger, Saturday sure felt a lot like late December.

“I’d say probably the closest thing would definitely be Christmas, my first Christmas,” the safety from Lenoir-Rhyne said on a teleconference last Friday after becoming the first player from a North Carolina school — and the first pick of the New England Patriots — in this year’s NFL Draft.

“I did know that they were going to have interest in me. I was talking to them a lot during this process, a lot with (Coach Bill) Belichick. So I did know they were interested in me.”

Dugger’s selection was hardly a surprise despite the size and profile of his school. He made a positive impression at the Senior Bowl in January and had a strong performance at the NFL Scouting Combine a month later, placing in the top 10 among defensive backs in the vertical jump, broad jump and 40-yard dash.

In his wildest dreams, however, he said he never could have predicted being selected as high as the second round — with the 37th overall pick — several rounds higher than anyone from higher-profile state schools North Carolina, NC State or Wake Forest.

It took until the fourth round and the 126th pick before Tar Heels offensive tackle Charlie Heck finally became the first player from the Big Four to be taken, by the Houston Texans. In fact, Appalachian State and Charlotte also had players drafted before anyone from an in-state ACC team came off the board.

Mountaineers running back Darrynton Evans, who passed up his senior season to turn pro, was taken in the third round (93rd overall) by the Tennessee Titans. Charlotte defensive end Alex Highsmith, a former walk-on from Wilmington, went nine picks later to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

“Words can’t explain it,” Highsmith said. “I’m just so happy — this was one of the organizations that I wanted to go to. I’m just so excited to get to work and do whatever I can to get the Steelers (Super Bowl) ring No. 7.”

Closer to home, the Carolina Panthers are still chasing their first Super Bowl title.

And from the looks of things, new coach Matt Rhule is a subscriber to the theory that while offense puts fans in the seats, it’s defense that wins championships.

The Panthers made history by becoming the first team since the NFL-AFL merger to use all seven of their draft picks on defensive players. Only the 1985 Cleveland Browns came close to matching that when they used all seven picks on offense.

Oddly enough, for all the talent that it added to its defense last weekend, Carolina didn’t fill what many believe to be its biggest void by finding a replacement for retired star linebacker Luke Kuechly.

The Panthers had their chance when Clemson All-American Isaiah Simmons fell into their lap at No. 7 in the first round, but they instead decided to go with Auburn tackle Derrick Brown.

They took end Yetur Gross-Matos and Southern Illinois safety Jeremy Chinn in the second round before rounding out their selections with Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride, West Virginia safety Kenny Robinson, Baylor defensive tackle Bravvion Roy and Florida International cornerback Stantley Thomas-Oliver on day three of the draft.

“A few times we had an offensive guy as the next guy up,’’ Rhule said after the draft, indicating that there wasn’t a specific strategy to concentrate solely on defense. “As it got within three or four picks, that player went away.

“It’s a unique situation. The great thing is that you have a cohort of young guys who are now going to grow in (defensive coordinator Phil Snow’s) system.’’

Among the other state players taken in the draft were Heck’s UNC teammate, defensive end Jason Strowbridge (fifth round, 154 overall, Miami Dolphins); NC State defensive linemen Larrell Murchison (fifth, 174, Tennessee Titans) and James Smith-Williams (seventh, 229, Washington Redskins); Wake Forest linebacker Justin Strnad (fifth, 178, Denver Broncos) and offensive tackle Justin Herron (sixth, 195, New England Patriots); App State linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither (fourth, 107, Cincinnati Bengals) and Charlotte offensive tackle Cameron Clark (fourth, 129, New York Jets).

Clemson safety Tanner Muse, a native of Belmont, was taken in the third round with the 100th overall pick by the Las Vegas Raiders.

While being selected in the draft represented a dream come true for all the players involved, it was especially meaningful for some.

Murchison, for instance, was a high school fullback at a small school in Bladen County before moving on to a junior college and then NC State, where he helped carry on a growing tradition of standout defensive linemen.

“Once I think about how far I came on this journey and where I started and now to being drafted by the Tennessee Titans, it means everything,” Murchison said. “It’s been a long road, but I always kept the faith along the way. So I’m ready for whatever’s next.”

As indirect a path as Murchison took to the NFL, Dugger’s was even more unlikely. Even if his ultimate selection wasn’t.

“It’s definitely been a journey with a lot of ups and downs,” said the Cliff Harris Award winner as the top player in Division II in 2019 and the highest-selected non-Division I player since 2007. “It was a long time throughout high school and coming into college that I didn’t see this day as how it is now. It wasn’t in sight like it is now.

“Just to be able to represent my family and go through adversities and come from them, and to be able to play for an organization like this is a huge honor and really an unexplainable feeling. I’m still kind of shocked, honestly, but it’s really huge for me.”