MOBILE, Ala. --- Their schools are maybe 2 ½ hours apart by car, and on Tuesday morning, Javon Kinlaw and Kyle Dugger were separated by only a few yards of Mobile Convention Center floor space.
But their situations this week at the Senior Bowl are vastly different.
Kinlaw, South Carolina’s dominating defensive tackle, is penciled into the first round of April’s NFL draft, as the predraft process gets underway. He might be the top NFL prospect participating in this week’s game. In a series of interviews before the week’s first practices, Kinlaw repeatedly was asked why in the world he is in Mobile, risking injury, or embarrassment at the hands of some random offensive lineman, when he would seem to have little to prove here.
Dugger, meanwhile, is a safety from Division II Lenoir-Rhyne, in Hickory, N.C. His entire college team celebrated when Dugger was invited to the Senior Bowl. He needs to be here, to show NFL scouts he can do the same things against big-time NFL prospects that he did to the wide receivers and running backs from Newberry, or Mars Hill, or Tusculum. Dugger risks little by competing this week, and he could reap big rewards.
Dugger might be from the most obscure program, but he is more representative of what the Senior Bowl has come to be in 2020 than is Kinlaw. Many of this year’s top draft prospects are among the 103 underclassmen who have declared. They can’t compete in Mobile unless they have graduated. The college playoff system has thrown in another wrinkle: LSU cornerback Kristian Fulton withdrew Monday, at least partly because his college season just ended last week, after 15 games.
College players showcasing themselves in Mobile now tend to have something to prove to NFL talent evaluators. That’s true of even the biggest names, such as Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, who entered the 2019 season as the top prospect at his position and ended it no better than the third- or fourth-best QB, many analysts feel.
Kinlaw, a potential Fletcher Cox-type interior pass rusher who measured and weighed in Tuesday at a shade over 6-foot-5, 315 pounds, said he doesn’t feel his situation is very different from that of anyone else pawing the artificial turf at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
“I feel like I’ve got something to prove my dang self,” Kinlaw said. “I just got a lot of high expectations of myself, and I love to play ball. It’s another opportunity to play. Why not?
“I’ve got everything to prove. I treat myself like I’m the guy still at the bottom. … I set my goals so high this season, and I just feel like I didn’t accomplish any of them, honestly.”
Kinlaw was named a first-team Associated Press All-American after dropping more than 20 pounds last offseason. He finished 2019 with six sacks, rushing from a DT spot, but he’d hoped for a lot more.
“I said, ‘I want to have, like, 15 sacks.’ I didn’t even get close,” Kinlaw said.
Dugger, half an inch over 6-foot and weighing 220, projects as one of those increasingly popular safety-linebacker hybrids. His Lenoir-Rhyne coach, Drew Cronic, who recently became head coach at Mercer, has called Dugger the type of player a small school gets maybe once every couple of decades.
What does being invited to the Senior Bowl mean to him?
“That means everything. It’s something I didn’t expect to happen. To be here, to be able to compete with these guys, it’s huge for me,” Dugger said. “It’s all I could really ask for, as a D-II athlete, trying to play at the next level.”
Dugger said there were initial conversations about how he might practice a little at linebacker this week, but he hasn’t heard anything about that lately. He said NFL teams he has met with here want to know where he feels most comfortable, which is safety, he said.
“I want to show them my versatility. I want to show them everything I got … and potentially what I could learn and what I could do at the next level,” Dugger said. “I feel like I bring a lot of IQ” after playing under four different defensive coordinators.
Dugger said when he got no Division I offers coming out of high school in Fayetteville, Ga., and settled on Lenoir-Rhyne, the NFL remained “a long-term goal,” but one he had no idea how to achieve.
“I didn’t know so much about steps like this,” he said.
Kinlaw’s biggest challenges came earlier. He shared with reporters his early childhood story of deprivation in Washington, where his family sometimes camped out in basements, without running water. Kinlaw’s mother brought Kinlaw and his brother there from Trinidad and Tobago just before Kinlaw was born, he said.
“I was a kid. … That stuff didn’t bother me. I was just thinking, ‘That’s how we live.’ I didn’t know how everybody else was living,” Kinlaw said.
Now he has a 9-month-old daughter, Eden Kamara Kinlaw, and a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. As he prepares for the draft, Kinlaw’s priority is making sure she has a very different beginning, one he feels he can help secure by doing well this week.