DeKALB – Not many college football players get eight years in a program. Kyle Pugh is relishing that chance.
The 25-year-old NIU linebacker hasn’t played more than six games in a season for the Huskies since 2018, including missing all of last season. But his experience has been a boon for the younger players, something he learned watching from the sidelines as the Huskies won a MAC championship after a winless 2020.
“It’s definitely an unprecedented experience, I would say,” Pugh said. “With my experience and my knowledge of the game, I’m more like an extra coach out there. Guys are coming to me on the sideline. It helps me with my mental reps. I know I have to be paying attention on the sideline because my young guys are going to come and ask me questions. It keeps me locked in. Mental reps are probably a key thing for me right now.”
Pugh was part of the 2015 signing class, taking a redshirt that season. In 2016 he played 10 games, mainly on special teams. He was starting to have a breakout season in 2017 with 35 tackles in four games. But in that fourth game, at San Diego State, he was injured and missed the rest of the year.
The 2018 season was his only full season for the Huskies, playing 13 games and making 106 tackles, five for loss and 1.5 sacks. But in 2019 he was hurt in Week 2 at Utah, cutting his season short again.
In December 2019, the program applied to the NCAA to get two redshirt seasons for Pugh and was approved. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the 2020 season did not count against any athlete’s eligibility, so Pugh got a free 2020 season.
He played five of the six games for the Huskies, making 36 tackles, 3.5 for loss and 1.5 sacks. NIU went 0-6 in the short season.
Then in the final spring practice of 2021, Pugh tore an ACL and ended up missing the season, which saw the Huskies win a MAC championship – their first since 2018 – coincidentally, Pugh’s only full season with the team.
“With my experience, I just allowed myself maybe five or 10 minutes to be in the moment,” Pugh said when he found out he’d miss the 2021 season. “It definitely hurt my feelings I wasn’t going to be playing football. About 15 minutes after, it is what it is, and I just have to start over. I know I’m not done with the game yet.”
Friday was Pugh’s second day on the field as the Huskies practiced without pads. Saturday’s practice was scheduled to be the first with pads this spring as the team heads toward their April 16 spring showcase.
Pugh said he’s gone through recovery enough in the past that he feels he has a good plan in place.
“For me, the key thing is to not have the mindset of staying healthy,” Pugh said. “I can either do it or I can’t. Football still means the world to me, so I have to be able to play at a high level. There are no restrictions. If the doctor says I’m good, I’m ready to roll.”
Obviously, Pugh is considerably older than most of his teammates, even in the linebacking corps, which is one of the older groups for the Huskies.
Fourth-year head coach Thomas Hammock said that changes, slightly, the relationship between a player and his coaches.
“Obviously, you have more mature conversations,” Hammock said. “It’s been interesting to hear his perspective on different things – how we’ve evolved as a team, how we’ve gotten better, maybe some flaws we had before. I think he has experience, and he can relay those experiences to the guys so they can continue to learn.”
Although he wasn’t on the field with the Huskies last year, he said he still was thrilled to be on the championship team.
“It was definitely a blessing to even be a part of it, say I was associated with the team in any way,” Pugh said. “To see those guys out there, it meant everything to me. I was a part of that in ‘18. So to see them turn it all the way around is amazing.”
Hammock pointed out that Pugh basically has been with the team through two full recruiting cycles, with his fellow 2015 signees long gone, and some, such as Sutton Smith, even in the NFL.
Lance Deveaux followed a similar path as Pugh – an oft-injured linebacker who put together a healthy season in 2021 and left a champion. Hammock said he hopes the team can do the same this year for Pugh.
“The thing about Kyle is you want him to go out the right way,” Hammock said. “Obviously, staying healthy is a big part of that. Just having the ability to go out there and finish his senior year, similar to what Lance Deveaux did last year. We want him to give him the opportunity to do that.”