The National Football League season doesn’t start until next month, but one player that has stood out is New England Patriots rookie safety Kyle Dugger, who graduated from Lenoir-Rhyne earlier this year. Selected by the Patriots in the second round of April’s NFL draft, Dugger has played at a high level during training camp.
During a Monday press conference with reporters, Patriots coach Bill Belichick praised Dugger’s performance thus far.
“Kyle’s a smart kid and he works really hard,” said Belichick. “He takes coaching well and you can definitely see improvement, I would say not only from day-to-day, but in some cases from play-to-play. I think he’s got a good understanding of football and he’s a pretty instinctive player, so when you tell him something, he usually understands what you’re talking about, especially if he’s had any chance at all to experience it before.
“There are some things that he just hasn’t seen that might take a little longer to explain to him, just because he’s not familiar with them,” he added. “But, he’s very coachable, he picks up things quickly and the things that he hasn’t seen before, once he sees them and can understand what the conflict is or what the situation is that we have to address, he’s been very good to make those adjustments and handle it the next time.”
With veteran safety Patrick Chung choosing to opt out of the upcoming NFL season, Dugger could end up starting for the Patriots. The 24-year-old native of Decatur, Georgia, won the Cliff Harris Award in 2019 as the top small college defensive player in the country, despite only appearing in seven games due to injury.
In addition to his work on the defensive side of the ball, Dugger was also a standout punt returner during his time at Lenoir-Rhyne. He was the only Division II player to play in the Reese’s Senior Bowl this past January in Mobile, Alabama, and he was also the only D-II prospect to take part in the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis from Feb. 24 through March 1.
Dugger is scheduled to make his NFL debut when the Patriots begin the regular season against the Miami Dolphins on Sept. 13 at 1 p.m. in Foxborough, Massachusetts. Other local players currently on NFL rosters include offensive linemen Nick Easton (New Orleans Saints) and Tyler Shatley (Jacksonville Jaguars), who played at Hibriten and East Burke high schools, respectively.
Here’s an update on other professional athletes from Catawba County and the surrounding area:
J.T. Poston, PGA Tour competitor
After finishing with a 6-over-par during the PGA Championship earlier this month, former Hickory High golfer Poston missed the cut at the Wyndham Championship the following week at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro. However, he bounced back at the Northern Trust Aug. 20-23 at TPC Boston, shooting 9-under to tie for 39th.
Poston shot an even par 71 during the opening round of the PGA Tour’s most recent event before firing a 4-under 67 in the second round and a 5-under 66 on Saturday. He finished the tournament with another even par 71 during Sunday’s final round.
The next event on the PGA Tour calendar is the BMW Championship this Thursday through Sunday in Olympia Fields, Illinois. The Tour Championship takes place Sept. 4-7 in Atlanta, with the 2020-21 season starting the following week.
The U.S. Open (Sept. 17-20) and the Masters Tournament (Nov. 12-15) are the most prestigious tournaments remaining in 2020. The British Open, originally scheduled for last month but canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will not be held this year.
Matt DiBenedetto, NASCAR Cup Series driver
Originally from Grass Valley, California, DiBenedetto now resides in Hickory with his wife, Taylor. The 29-year-old has 18 top-10 finishes in six years as part of the NASCAR Cup Series.
DiBenedetto’s most recent top-10 finish came in the Consumers Energy 400 on Aug. 9 at Michigan International Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan. He started the race from the sixth spot and finished seventh.
Since then, DiBenedetto has posted finishes of 15th, 20th and 17th to significantly hurt his position in the Cup Series standings. He needs a strong showing in the regular-season finale, Saturday’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, to qualify for the postseason.
“I am going to sit and hope and pray all week that we can just come out of there clean and make the playoffs,” DiBenedetto told reporters following the second of two races at Delaware’s Dover International Speedway this past weekend. “We shouldn’t be this close to the bubble. It is frustrating. A couple weeks messed us up. Getting wiped out at Texas and Kansas really hurt us points-wise, and then we come here and really hurt ourselves here. It has been a tough go of circumstances and going to Daytona is going to make it quite an uncomfortable week.”
Note: Major League Baseball pitchers Madison Bumgarner (Arizona Diamondbacks) and Hunter Harvey (Baltimore Orioles), graduates of South Caldwell and Bandys high schools, respectively, are currently on the injured list. Bumgarner was 0-3 with a 9.35 ERA in four starts at the time of his mid-back strain, while Harvey hasn’t pitched this season due to elbow discomfort after making his major league debut last August.
Josh McKinney is the sports editor for the Hickory Daily Record.
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