5 small-college players to watch in the Senior Bowl

Division II senior Kyle Dugger believes says he has the ability to play at the next level. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

When Kyle Dugger arrived at Whitewater High as a freshman, he stood 5-foot-6 and looked nothing like a future NFL prospect.

By the time he was a senior, Dugger stood 6-1 and went on to play Division II football at Lenoir-Rhyne in Hickory, North Carolina. After a stellar college career, the strong safety had caught the collective eye of NFL scouts and was invited to the Senior Bowl. He will play in the 71st annual college all-star football game at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.

Dugger and Liberty wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden, who played at Paulding County High, will have an opportunity to see how they stack up against the major college guys from the SEC, ACC and Big Ten.

“For both of those guys, it’s really fortunate for them to be moving around and seeing them against the ostensible top talent in the country,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “Again, this is a great place to get a real feel for what they are about. They are doing a good job so far.”

In addition to Dugger and Gandy-Golden, St. John's guard Ben Bartch, South Carolina State tackle Alex Taylor and Dayton tight end Adam Trautman are five small-college players looking to impress NFL scouts.

“Senior Bowl week is always huge for those guys,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “You look at Tytus Howard from last year. He was a guy out of a HBCU, Alabama State.”

Howard had a good week at the Senior Bowl and moved up from his projection as a third- or fourth-round pick. He was taken 23rd in the first round by the Texans.

“The guy signed a $12 million contract in the offseason, so those are the cool stories for me,” Nagy said. “I love that.”

Howard went on to make the Pro Football Writers of America’s All-Rookie team.

Here’s a look at the five small-college standouts this year:

Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne:  Dugger was the Cliff Harris award winner as the nation's top Division II defensive back. 

“I feel like there are a lot of question marks and doubts about me,” Dugger said. “I know that’s the case, so I want to prove everything and show everything that I’ve got. That’s really my main goal. To show everything and prove that I belong here.”

Dugger, who had a growth spurt in high school, believes he has versatility and a high football intelligence level.

“I came into high school a 5-6 and I grew about 6-1ish my senior year,” Dugger said. “Throughout that whole time I was literally growing two and three inches at a time between years.”

Some teams believe Dugger could play linebacker.

“Other teams have said I’m a safety,” Dugger said. “Some teams have said I can play either or. It’s really depending on the team. I’m going to start out at safety in practice.”

Gandy-Golden, Liberty: Gandy-Golden had two strong days of practice and has shown his ability to track deep passes.  

"I just always have the mindset that when the ball is in the air, it's mine's," Gandy-Golden said. "I've done it a lot in practice. My coaches have always taught me to attack the ball when it's in the air. I've made a habit of that growing up and it's just translated."

Gandy-Golden, who was a late bloomer, feels that he’s improved his route running over his time at Liberty.

“I didn’t play until high school,” Gandy-Golden said. “ I hadn’t played any organized sports. It was nice. I felt like I picked it up pretty quick, once I got the ball rolling.”

Bartch, St. Johns: The school is in Collegeville, Minn., and plays Division III. Bartch is 6-foot-6 and 305 pounds.

Bartch has been compared to Ali Marpet, who went to Hobart and played in the Senior Bowl. He was drafted by Tampa Bay in the second round of the 2015 draft.

“I don’t know where Ben is going to go,” Nagy said. “He got better every week. He’s big. He’s got the size...He certainly dominated at his level.”

Bartch plans to follow in Marpet’s footsteps.

“I’ve actually talked to Ali a few times on the phone,” Bartch said. “He’s kind of been really supportive of me, looking out for a fellow D3 player. I’ve watched a lot of his film on youtube. He’s definitely a good role model.”

Trautman, Dayton:  He caught 11 passes for 132 yards and made a key block in Dayton's big upset of Indiana State last season.

He’s 6-foot-6 and 253 pounds and was a high school quarterback.

“He’s a really intriguing guy,” Nagy said. “Really a crisp route runner. He’s going to test well. He’s really good with the ball.”

The Senior Bowl has four scouts and 16 NFL teams help them select the players.

“When we sent our scout there to Dayton this fall, Brian Adams texted me, ‘I’m on the road to Columbus (Ohio),” Nagy said. “Troutman just scored four touchdowns in the first half. I’m done. I’m good on Trautman.”

Alex Taylor, S.C. State: He's 6-foot-9, 305 pounds and has an 88-inch wingspan.

“(S.C. State) is the school that we got Darius Leonard (Colts) and Javon Hargrave (Steelers) from,” Nagy said. “S.C. State has put out a ton of great players in the NFL.”

Taylor, a cousin of former Georgia Tech quarterback Joe Hamilton, started his career at Appalachian State. He transferred to play basketball at S.C. State, but ended up on the football team.

“He’s really long,” Nagy said. “He’s got great feet. The upside there is tremendous. He’s really talented, but he’s raw. There are things that he can clean up, too.”

Taylor wears a size 18 shoe.

“He should be able to play left tackle,” Nagy said.

Taylor knows about Howard’s journey.

“I would love to be like a Tytus Howard,” Taylor said. “But I mean, to get drafted in the first three rounds would be a big success for me.”

Taylor believes he’ll hold his own in the game.

“I can play with anybody,” said Taylor, who interviewed with the Falcons which means they have a draftable grade on him. “Just because I’m coming from a small school doesn’t mean…that small school stigma needs to be thrown out. There have been a lot of guys that have shown that they can play. I just want to keep it going. Keep the train going.”


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