To many, Julian Dugger stands head and shoulders above the rest of the quarterbacks in the WPIAL — he is 6 feet 4, after all — and to some, he might even be considered one of the best signal-callers in the state.
You can call him a dual-threat quarterback, an athletic freak, a multi-sport star — you name it. But to his Penn Hills teammates and coaches, the towering left-hander with the golden arm in the classic red-and-gold Indians attire is almost a larger-than-life figure.
“He’s unbelievable, man. That’s why he’s the best. He’s one of the best quarterbacks in the nation,” Penn Hills receiver D’Andre Cochran said. “He’s one of a kind.”
For those who witnessed Dugger’s scintillating performance Friday night to lead the Indians to a 26-20 victory at defending WPIAL and PIAA Class 5A champion Pine-Richland, it’s not hard to see why other players appear mesmerized in his presence. Dugger rushed for 148 yards and two touchdowns on only 11 carries to go with 68 yards passing and two more scores through the air, authoring arguably the most impressive win of his career so far as a four-year starter.
“Julian Dugger is a beast. I don’t know what you want me to say,” Penn Hills coach Charles Morris said. “He’s leading the team. … He demands more from his teammates offensively, and he demands for them to be great.”
After the game, Dugger spoke about the team’s mindset coming off a disappointing 5-5 finish in 2022, noting that the top-ranked Indians still have a long way to go after their 3-0 start in order to accomplish their goals and prove all of their doubters wrong.
“It’s always good to have a win, but we’re not done yet,” Dugger said. “Our end goal is not this. We really want more.”
Opponents who try to trash-talk him in pregame usually wind up singing his praises afterward. The taunts don’t seem to faze Dugger, who exudes a calm confidence which not many high school quarterbacks can match. Then again, he’s typically one of the biggest, strongest and fastest players on the field, so why should he worry about what the defense says they’re going to do? As with so many things in life, stopping or even slowing down Dugger is easier said than done, and he knows it.
That became clear fairly early Friday night, when Dugger bounced outside on a designed run before turning up the sideline, then cut back across the length of the field while weaving between defenders for a jaw-dropping 52-yard gain. A few plays later, he was diving into the end zone for a 4-yard TD run to put Penn Hills on top, 12-10, early in the second quarter.
After Dugger floated a perfectly located 15-yard TD pass to Martel Palmer on fourth-and-10 late in the first half, the Indians went into the locker room clinging to an 18-17 lead. The star senior saved his best play for the second half, though, bursting through the middle of the field and outracing the Rams defense to the end zone for a 60-yard score. His successful 2-point conversion pass gave Penn Hills just enough breathing room to hang on, as Cochran later came down with the game-clinching interception in the end zone on the final play to seal the win.
“It feels amazing,” Dugger said. “My team needs me to make plays, and I’m always there for them. I’ll do whatever it takes to win.”
It’s still very early in this season, of course, but it’s only natural to start wondering how this year’s team stacks up to the 2018 Indians who won Class 5A WPIAL and PIAA titles. That team was a special group coached by Jon LeDonne, who now is the head coach at Pine-Richland, and it featured a handful of standout players including quarterback Hollis Mathis, running back Tank Smith and wide receivers Daequan Hardy and Dante Cephas. Mathis plays at William & Mary, while Smith, Hardy and Cephas are teammates this fall at Penn State.
This year’s group may not have the same star power across all the skill positions, but senior running back Amir Key is an elite player in his own right, and Penn Hills has plenty of capable receivers in Cochran, Palmer and Cam Thomas, just to name a few. The Indians’ big boys up front also proved they could handle one of the most heralded lines in the state against Pine-Richland, with Penn Hills appearing to control the line of scrimmage for much of the second half.
Oh, and in case that weren’t enough, the Indians also have the ultimate X-factor at their disposal — and it appears he still has something left to prove.
“This is Julian’s team,” Morris said. “He knows his place. He demands his respect, as he should.”