The job belonged to Sherrick McManis, a senior so accomplished that he would eventually be drafted by the Houston Texans. But then, shortly before the 'Cats played the third game of their 2009 season at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, the cornerback was injured, and thrust into his spot was a callow freshman named Demetrius Dugar. A year earlier, down at Houston's powerful Aldine High, he had helped catalyze his team to a playoff berth and earned All-District honors. But here against the Orange, he remembers, "It was a lot of butterflies.
"I was really nervous. It was my first college game. The guy in front of me had gotten hurt and I had to step up, go out there and make a play here and there. But I just remember it being a real humbling experience because I got out there, I gave up a couple plays, a couple catches. It was like, 'Man, it's real. It's not high school. It's a lot faster. You can't depend on your athleticism to get by. You've got to actually step in the playbook and know what's going on on the field.' So, for the most part, it was a humbling experience."
"I remember a young man, he looked like a deer in headlights," echoes 'Cat coach Pat Fitzgerald. "Eyes way too big and not seeing anything, and here goes a route in front of him, here goes that in front of him. It almost makes you freeze. Your eyes are so big, they make you freeze. Then you're always a step behind, two steps behind."
The job now belongs to senior Demetrius Dugar, who will start at right corner for the 'Cats when they open their season Saturday at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. "The grown-up part," he will say when asked to describe the difference in him between then and now. "More poise. Confidence. I'm confident in what I can do. I'm confident in what the guys on the team can do. I think that's an important mentality to have rather than being on the edge all the time. Playing with that poise and confidence and knowing your abilities and what you can do. It's a whole different mindset for me, especially being out there starting. It's more comfortable now. I can go out there and make plays, I'm not worrying about messing up. So, going back to Syracuse, I feel it's going to be really exciting. And I like the stadium, I like the Dome. I feel it's going to be a lot of fun."
But between then and now, it was not always fun for Demetrius Dugar. It was, instead, a journey, a growing process, a vertiginous voyage not unlike those endured by many when they graduate from high school hero and move onto a conference as demanding as the Big Ten. He would, upon McManis' return, be a reserve through the rest of his freshman year, be a reserve again as a sophomore, then be a reserve for all but two games last season, his third as a 'Cat.
"Earlier in my career, I had a lot of distractions in that, just me growing up and learning how to be responsible and learning how to put my all into something and not be selfish and things like that," he will say when asked to account for his up-and-down career. "I feel like over the last two years I've really grown in that area of my life. So now, I had the best spring I ever had, the best summer I ever had. Now I'm trying to step into the best fall I've ever had and hopefully have the best season I ever had."
Every player covets playing time. That is a truism as old as football itself. So it is no surprise that, when asked the catalyst of his metamorphosis, Demetrius Dugar says, "Just not playing as much as I wanted to and having to understand why. I had to be honest with myself. 'What do I have to work at?' It's not high school where you're better than most guys, so you're out there. You've got everyone competing for the same job. So you've got to do everything right and I wasn't always doing everything right. I finally figured out how to pull it all together, so I'm trying to be going up the hill now rather than skidding downhill."
So is he studying more? Eating better? Getting more rest? What?
"Studying more and learning how to study right, rather than just looking at plays and trying to save some stuff in your mind. It's more about knowing formations, about knowing what tendencies they have, about looking at the quarterback. Is he going to look to your side before the play? There's a lot more that goes into it than just going out there and running with a guy."
When last offseason began, the 'Cat defensive backfield was as unsettled as this nation's economy. Ibraheim Campbell, the sophomore safety, was set at one of its four positions. But the other three were up for grabs, open competitions that Demetrius Dugar entered with his new mindset in place. That and memories of McManis, whom he still talks to occasionally. "Sherrick McManis, he was like a big brother to me when I first got here. But I was kind of rough around the edges, so I didn't really buy into what people said," he explains.
"I would come out and do my thing. I'd do the minimum. Not the absolute minimum, but I wasn't doing the most that I could do to make myself the best player I could be. But just looking at Sherrick, and having conversations with him about work ethic and creating something for yourself rather than having things handed to you, it's a whole different mentality. It puts you in a whole different mindset. You've got to realize it is what you make of it, not what someone else makes of it for you."
We have recently talked with Demetrius Dugar and now, on a warm morning up at Camp Kenosha, we share some of what he has said with Pat Fitzgerald. A small smile dances across his face as he listens and then he says, "I've seen him grow up right in front our eyes, and that's like a lot of young men, right? It's self-awareness. And the realization that it's kind of the key ingredient missing here. It's like the guy on Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. I love that show. You put all these ingredients together, but it might not taste good unless you get that key ingredient. Typically, that key ingredient is attitude.
"He's not been a bad-attitude guy. He's just not been what he's capable of. The credit goes to him. He had the self-awareness to realize he had to improve that area, and when that happened, it just seems everything starts going just a little bit better. He's working out harder, he's smiling more, he's having more fun, he's making more plays. Now, all of a sudden, here he goes. So I'm really proud of him, and I know his mom is proud of him back in Houston, and hopefully he's going to go out and have a great year."
The memory of his first college game, that long-ago game up in Syracuse, is most-certainly seared into his brainpan, marinating there as one more bit of motivation. "Oh, yeah. Definitely. Yeah. Definitely," Demetrius Dugar will finally say. "My career's still an open book and I want to close that book, write that last chapter and be the hero in my narrative."