Wesley Dugger says he didn’t come to Davidson to lose football games.
“I definitely feel like we’re turning the corner,” said Dugger, a freshman who has quickly emerged as one of the Pioneer Football League’s top running backs. “I want to set a tone for myself and other freshman. We aren’t here to do what has happened over the past few years.”
Dugger might be uniquely positioned to do just that. Recovered from a serious leg injury that came midway through his senior season in high school, Dugger has rushed for 801 yards (a 100.1 yard average) and four touchdowns for the Wildcats (2-6, 0-5), who play Campbell (5-4, 4-2) Saturday at Richardson Stadium.
“I think I can set a huge example already, during my freshman year,” said Dugger, who is 6-foot and 192 pounds. “In most programs, freshmen don’t take the role of vocal leaders because they don’t know how the program works from the get-go and they don’t know all the guys from the get-go.
“However, through pushing 100 percent through practice and setting a tone – especially with other freshmen – I think we can help change things around here.”
That’s the kind of attitude fifth-year Wildcats coach Paul Nichols appreciates as he continues to nudge his program toward PFL respectability.
“Wes is pretty mature and forward thinking and, in a good way, pretty hard-headed,” Nichols said. “Sometimes players show up and they see how we’re trying to build this thing, and they’ll use every excuse in the book. You can convince yourself this thing is too hard and there are too many obstacles to overcome.
“Wes is the kind of player we’re looking for: talented – and stubborn.”
Football is usually a struggle at Davidson and, despite the arrival of Dugger, this season hasn’t been much different. The Wildcats haven’t had a winning season since 2007 and their two victories this season have come against Division III opponents Brevard and Guilford. They haven’t won a game in the PFL – a nonscholarship Football Championship Subdivision conference - since 2015.
But under Nichols – a 2003 Davidson graduate – and behind the rugged running of Dugger, the Wildcats have at least been competitive in some of their conference games this season, including a 17-12 loss at Drake last week.
Nichols took a big chance on Dugger, who, growing up in a single-parent home, was lightly recruited during his career at Goodwin High in the Richmond suburb of Henrico, Va.
But after rushing for more than 1,000 yards heading into the sixth game of his senior season, Dugger began receiving interest from FCS programs James Madison and William & Mary. He said he already had been offered a full scholarship to play linebacker at Virginia Military and had offers from Davidson and fellow PFL member Valparaiso, as well.
But things changed in that game, when a defender hit the outside of Dugger’s right knee, rupturing his medial lateral ligament and tearing his hamstring away from the bone. It was a severe injury, and a surgery that produced a 5-inch scar on the outside of his right knee ended Dugger’s high school career. He said he didn’t hear from JMU, William & Mary or VMI again.
But Nichols and Davidson remained interested, as did Washington & Lee, a Division III school in Virginia.
Dugger chose Davidson, where he had attended a summer football camp after his junior season in high school. He arrived on campus and, despite having completed a strenuous offseason rehab regimen, was still not yet medically cleared to practice. Nichols, in fact, wasn’t counting on Dugger playing at all, figuring he’d sit out his freshman season until he got fully healthy for his sophomore year.
“We didn’t think he was going to be cleared, to be honest,” Nichols said. “But the doctors cleared him the first day. So we said let’s give him 30 minutes a day during camp. At the end of training camp, let’s make it an hour a day at practice. The first game? Let’s see how it goes. We didn’t really know.”
By the time Davidson’s season opener rolled around against Brevard, Nichols still didn’t know how much Dugger would play or what to expect if and when he did.
Dugger answered by running for 196 yards on 31 carries and a touchdown against the Tornados. The next week, against much tougher competition in the Southern Conference’s Western Carolina, Dugger rolled up 117 yards on 19 carries and a touchdown.
He’s kept it up ever since. He’s second in the PFL in rushing - behind only Campbell’s Daniel Smith – and ninth nationally.
The offseason rehab work that Dugger put in had obviously paid off. The injury also made Dugger a different kind of runner. Because of limitations he’s still feeling from the injury, he uses a more of a straight-ahead, power style now. After this season, Dugger says he will focus on a training program that will help bring back the lateral agility and quickness he had pre-injury in high school, making him more of a complete runner.
The injury also gave Dugger perspective on where football fits into his life now and in the future. At a team meeting this week, Dugger watched closely as it was announced that a senior teammate had just been offered a job in his chosen field after he graduates.
“Coming to Davidson does set you up for life,” said Dugger, who hasn’t declared a major yet but is interested in sociology and political science. “Football is just an additive to show how hard you’ll work and you know there’s a group of guys out there after you graduate who can help you out.”
Dugger chose to play for a school that doesn’t offer football scholarships, although he said he is receiving some financial aid through other avenues.
“The injury really opened my eyes,” he said. “If football is no longer my life, how would I like where I chose to go to school? I’m not going here because of the (scholarship) money I might be getting. For me, it’s a huge thing that if you go some place for free, you might end up hating the place, then where are you?”
David Scott: @davidscott14