Justin Pugh has lined up on the offensive side for Syracuse in all but four games since the beginning of the 2010 season. In each of the 34 matches he was activated for, Pugh was the team's starting left tackle.
With Pugh on the offensive line, the Orange have had a different running back in each of the last three seasons attain the 1,000-yard mark on the ground.
After aiding the Syracuse Orange football program to two bowl games, both victories, in his three seasons, Pugh has made the decision to forgo his final season of eligibility and declare for the 2013 NFL draft.
"Well first thing, it's always been a dream of mine since I was a little kid playing touch football with my neighbors in my backyard, and It's been something I've looked forward to," said Pugh. "But, once I got in Syracuse and realized it could be a reality, it became something I wanted to do."
"And then, once I got my degree and my last grade came in," Pugh continued, "[and] I'm officially graduated from Syracuse University, I thought that I played three good years of football. The injury kind of scared me. I know coming back I didn't want to risk getting re-injured but moving onto the next level I'm just excited. I'm excited to see how I match up against those guys."
Pugh's shoulder injury kept him out of the first four matches in 2012. Speaking on whether or not he thought he would ever be able to compete at the same level he had before the injury, Pugh remarked, "It's always a little thought in the back of your mind, but as you prepare and coach Hal [Luther] and coach [William] Hicks did a great job of getting me back, getting me confident in my shoulder."
"[Head] coach [Doug] Marrone did everything he could for me," Pugh added. "He got me to a great doctor, gave me everything I needed, and that was something that just speaks about our program, and how great everyone is and how much of a family we are. So coming back, I was in a great mindset. I knew I was 100% and I would be able to play at a high level."
Pugh did exactly that, as he and his teammates achieved a 6-2 to finish the regular season. In the four games without Pugh, Syracuse was a mere 1-3.
With seven wins in the regular season, the Orange made their second trip in three seasons to the New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankees Stadium in Bronx, NY.
When asked if not making a bowl would have changed his decision to leave for the NFL, Pugh responded, "It might have. I really can't dwell on what would've happened. We ended up winning seven of my last nine games I played in. So, really good way to finish my career at Syracuse, going out with a win against West Virginia, couldn't ask for a better send-off for our seniors. They're all the guys I came in with. I mean, most of those guys had to play right away 'cause we were lacking in depth and I was able to wait that one year and get it under my belt and really go out there and play good football for three years."
One of those seniors is Pugh's fellow lineman, Zack Chibane, who played to the right of Pugh at the position of left guard. Knowing that Chibane would not be next to him if he returned for his final season of eligibility was something Pugh had thought about. "I mean that definitely was part of the factor," said Pugh. "I mean, I room with [left guard] Zack Chibane and [wide receiver] Alec Lemon. They were both leaving...it's hard when you play with someone for three years and you room with someone for four years, four and a half years. It's something that definitely, it definitely impacted it, but I don't know how big of an impact. At the end of the day, football is a football decision. It's a business decision and you try to eliminate as much emotional factors out of it. But I think it definitely had a slight role in this decision. I mean, I'm losing a lot of the guys that I've hung out with for the past four years."
Despite losing the opportunity to play with the Orange on the field, Pugh's connection to the team will live on through the relationships he has made.
He had nothing but positive words for Syracuse's offensive line coach Greg Adkins. "Coach Ad, he got me through these four years," Pugh expressed. "He's my man. I mean, he's my go-to guy. If I ever have any problems, I call him. He was always there for me through this whole process."
Adkins went above and beyond what you would think a coach would do for a player. "Throughout my injury, he actually came down to Florida with me when I got my surgery, and he was there the whole time," Pugh shared. "And, it just speaks to what kind of guys we have on our coaching staff and our team. Any offensive line would be lucky to play for Coach Adkins. I'm sad that I won't be with him anymore, but I'll always be talking to him, communicating with him. Anything he needs I'll be there for him. And same with him with me, he's always gonna be there for me, and he told me that."
Looking ahead on his road to the NFL, Pugh shared, "The thing I found out is that you never know where you're gonna go. You could go to any one of the 32 teams. It just takes one team to fall in love with you. I'm hoping that through this process, with what I think I bring to the table, I think a team is gonna love me, and I think that it's gonna help me climb the draft boards."
"Once I get into the combine, through all the workouts and just the meetings with the teams, I think I'll have a better understanding of who likes me, who doesn't, and I'm just excited, man," Pugh continued. "This is the next chapter of my life and I'm gonna be spending the next four or five years at this organization, so I hope it's a stable organization that's ready to win."
Speaking on his childhood dream becoming a reality, Pugh said, "It's surreal. I think it won't really hit me until my name's called that I'm actually in the NFL."
With his childhood dream not far from coming into fruition, Pugh took the time to pay it forward, speaking with today's youth about having and achieving their own dreams.
"My mom's a teacher," Pugh shared. "I went and talked to her six grade classes...about setting goals and achieving goals, and I gave 'em my example. I was like, 'My goal was to go in the NFL, and [now] that dream became a reality. And now my next goal is to make a team and add value to a team, add value to a city, and really become imbedded in another community like I was in Syracuse and have a great ride like I did at Syracuse.'"
Regret did not roll off the tongue of Pugh after deciding that he would hang up his orange and blue jersey. Confidence, rather, was clear in the words of the hard-working lineman. "I'm proud of the way I played," Pugh shared. "I gave everything for this program, and hopefully the fans appreciate it. I love them for all the support they've given me [through this process], and I'm just excited for the next step in my future."
The 2013 NFL draft begins at 8pm ET on Thursday, April 25th, and will run through the afternoon on Saturday, April 27th.