Nick Dzubnar learned the hard way that sometimes no news really is good news.
The former Cal Poly All-American linebacker spent this past Saturday — the deadline for NFL teams to release their initial 53-man rosters — waiting to learn if his monthslong interview would result in a full-time job.
Feeling confident in his effort and performance during the San Diego Chargers training camp, Dzubnar did what he could to keep his mind off the impending decision.
The undrafted free agent made a strong impression on his teammates and led San Diego with 25 tackles and two sacks in four preseason games. But with Saturday’s 1 p.m. cutoff quickly approaching, Dzubnar began wondering if it was enough.
“Going into that last hour,” Dzubnar said during a phone interview Tuesday morning, “it was pretty much a gut-wrench, sitting in the parking lot just staring at my phone for an hour type of deal until the deadline passed.”
Dzubnar, who led the Mustangs in tackles three consecutive years and set the school record for single-season tackles with 167 in 2014, never received a call Saturday. When the Chargers distributed a story that included a list of players the organization had released, his name wasn’t on it.
Then Sunday, San Diego defensive coordinator John Pagano called Dzubnar and delivered the news: He was officially a San Diego Charger.
“(Pagano) pretty much just told me he liked me very early on based on the way I play, based on the way I picked up the defense, the way I act, the way I carry myself,” Dzubnar said.
“Obviously I’m not going to start on the defense, I’m going to contribute any way I can. “It’s probably going to be a big role on special teams and he just wants me to continue to progress and continue to work and be ready if they need me.”
The Mission Viejo native is one of four undrafted free agents to make the Chargers’ 53-man roster. Kicker Josh Lambo (Texas A&M), wide receiver Tyrell Williams (Western Oregon) and tackle Tyreek Burwell (Cincinnati) also made the team.
San Diego has five inside linebackers listed on its roster with Dzubnar joining fellow rookie Denzel Perryman and veterans Manti Te’o, Donald Butler and Kavell Conner.
Dzubnar, listed at 6-foot-3 and 254 pounds, agreed to a three-year contract when he signed with San Diego following the NFL draft in May. He’ll make the league minimum each of those three seasons, earning $435,000 as a rookie, $525,000 next year and $615,000 in 2017.
Dzubnar, the only Cal Poly alumnus on an NFL roster, said he received steady support from Chargers veterans during camp and singled out second-year outside linebacker Colton Underwood as someone who was particularly helpful.
Navigating his first NFL preseason yielded few surprises from a football standpoint, Dzubnar said, though it took some time to adjust to life on the low end of the proverbial totem pole.
“It’s frustrating because you go from being the senior captain, star of the football team, back to a freshman or a rookie where no one cares about you,” the 24-year-old said. “No one knows what you’ve done. Everyone here is a professional athlete. Everyone here is amazing. They were all stars at their colleges and they were at bigger schools than Cal Poly.”
The relentless energy Dzubnar brings will likely land him a spot on many of the Chargers’ special teams units, meaning he could be on the field the first play of the season against the Detroit Lions on Sunday.
In an interview with ESPN in late August, San Diego linebackers coach Mike Nolan said what separates Dzubnar is his competitiveness.
“That really is a trait that helps a lot of the good players in the NFL make it, and become even better,” Nolan said. “As much as you would like to think that all professional athletes are competitive, everybody has a different degree of how competitive they are.”
Nervous but also very excited is how Dzubnar described his expectations for San Diego’s season opener. A successful four-game preseason helped erase any doubts of being able to compete at the highest level.
That’s not terribly surprising for someone who led the Big Sky Conference and was second in the FCS with 13.9 tackles per game as a senior. In making 38 consecutive starts for the Mustangs, Dzubnar recorded 18 games with double-digit tackles.
“Physically I can definitely handle it,” Dzubnar said. “I’m just excited to get out there and hopefully knock someone on their ass.”