A Cross City bond: UF’s Dawson looking to follow in Dixie County standout’s footsteps

Florida CB Duke Dawson looking to follow in footsteps of former Dixie County, NFL standout

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Florida cornerback Duke Dawson participated in the Senior Bowl in January. He is expected to be a mid-round NFL draft pick. [Brynn Anderson/The Associated Press]

From his days playing youth and high school football in Cross City, Florida cornerback Duke Dawson always looked up to Nick Collins.

Dawson will get a chance to realize a dream that Collins already achieved when he gets picked in the NFL draft this weekend. A projected third to fourth-round pick, the 5-foot-11, 197-pound Dawson could get selected either Friday night or Saturday.

“A lot of people from where I’m from don’t get this opportunity — just two, me and Nick right now,” Dawson said. “But I feel like there’s some guys coming up. But I mean it’s always been a dream come true, since I was little. I never lost the passion for it.”

Collins, 34, was a former Dixie County High Standout and Division I-AA All-American defensive back at Bethune-Cookman who went on to a seven-year NFL career with the Green Bay Packers. Picked in the second round of the 2005 NFL draft, Collins was a three-time Pro Bowler with the Packers and won a Super Bowl ring, returning an interception for a touchdown in Green Bay’s 31-25 win over the Steelers during Super Bowl XLV in 2011. His career was cut short the following season when he sustained a neck injury against the Carolina Panthers.

Dawson said he still leans on Collins for advice and has called him a few times during the pre-draft process.

“Duke has been in my life for a long time,” Collins said. “I’ve known him since he was a baby, so just watching him grow over the years, through middle school, high school, and play collegiate ball, his skills just continue to improve each and every year at every level that he’s participated in and it’s a joy to watch.”

Dawson starred at Dixie County High from 2009-13 before going on to Florida. As a freshman safety, Dawson returned an interception for a touchdown in his first career game. Dawson’s four-year college career included stints as safety, nickel corner and cover corner. As a senior this past season, Dawson had 34 tackles, nine pass breakups and four interceptions, including an interception returned for a TD in UF’s season-opener against Michigan.

Coming off a productive senior season, Dawson said he’s received positive feedback from NFL teams leading up to the draft.

“They like the way I play, like the way I move,” Dawson said. “Just being able to play all three positions, just showing I’m a competitor. I just want to help the team any way I could.”

Collins said that versatility should help Dawson in his goal of getting drafted higher and staying in the NFL.

“He’s had to learn different positions but at the same time it helped him to better him as a complete player, a better attack player, a better cover corner, a better nickel guy, all of those intangibles will help going into the NFL,” Collins said, “And I think that, him going into this beautiful opportunity, and when the scouts and pro owners view his resume they’ll say this kid can do it all, they can use his him as nickel, they can put him outside and they can put him at safety and that brought a lot of value to Duke going through this process and getting drafted in the NFL.”

Dawson, who ran a 4.46 at the NFL combine, said he’s enjoyed meeting with different coaches and teams, including New England coach Bill Belichick, who has drafted several former Gators.

“Real cool guy in the room,” Dawson said. “I know he’s a hard coach. He wants the best for you. So, just being able to be around him and get his feedback is great.”

Collins said he expects Dawson to adapt once he gets picked and attends his first NFL camp.

“Just the knowledge of the game and the speed of the game, once he gets that part of the game, the sky is the limit for him,” Collins said. “I just think he has to go in there willing to learn, just knowing all the calls, making all the calls, doing everything as possible to be a great NFL player.”

Married with five children, Collins has lived in Orlando since his retirement and is staying involved in football by running youth camps and mentoring young people. Collins was induced into the Packers’ Hall of Fame in 2016. Dawson said he would love to get drafted by the Packers and follow in his mentor’s legacy.

Two players from Class A Dixie County playing for the same storied NFL franchise would be quite a coincidence.

“It just goes to show no matter where you go, where you are from, that if you put in the work and be very persistent at what you do, the sky is the limit,” Collins said. “Dreams can come true.”