Nick Dzubnar’s first spring drills were the vehicle that helped him earn credibility with Cal Poly football coaches.
Three years ago, the linebacker had a breakout spring, tallying four tackles in the spring game, and earned a reputation as a hard-working, heavy hitter. He used that momentum to become a key contributor by the end of his redshirt freshman season.
Dzubnar has led the Mustangs in tackles each of the past two seasons and going into his senior year is one of only a few returning starters not taking it easy heading into this year’s spring game, which is scheduled for noon today at Alex G. Spanos Stadium.
Six projected starters on defense are sitting to rest injuries, and nearly as many are doing the same on offense.
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But, Dzubnar said, spring camp can make or break an emerging player’s season.
“Spring ball is definitely to help the veterans refresh,” Dzubnar said, “but it’s huge for the young guys to prove who they are. You’ve got to prove somehow why you deserve to travel, why you deserve a spot on the team.”
Though starters are expected to get around 15 snaps before exiting the one-hour session expected to last around 80 plays, in the spring game, “young guys can go 40-50 plays,” Dzubnar added, “and that’s just testing how tough you are, how hard you don’t want to give up on a play, how hard you’re working after the play. In the spring ballgame, it’s huge. A lot of stuff like that will come out.”
Unlike last spring, when a four-man competition to replace Andre Broadous at quarterback dominated headlines, this camp has been relatively quiet.
Junior quarterbacks Chris Brown and Dano Graves are still in an open duel for the starting role, but Tanner Trosin has transferred, and former starter Vince Moraga is calling signals from the sideline as he recovers and ponders a comeback from a season-ending knee injury last fall.
Now is the time for freshmen such as former San Luis Obispo High standout Jack Ferguson to leverage playing time into an expanded role.
Ferguson has received plenty of second-team repetitions behind Dzubnar at middle linebacker, and he’s used the time to soak up feedback from coaches and more specifically, take cues from Dzubnar on how to call plays, make play adjustments and lead the defense in general.
“I’ve been getting a lot of reps this spring, and it’s something that I was really looking forward to coming into it,” Ferguson said.
“I couldn’t ask for a better person to learn from and watch and grow than Dzuby. He’s really a role model to watch. His leadership, that’s something I’m trying to replicate because he takes full control out there. He just seems to know what’s going on before it even happens.”
Ferguson isn’t the only local to watch today. Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said sophomore defensive end Kelly Shepard, a former Arroyo Grande High standout, has impressed thus far and should get plenty of action in the spring game and beyond.
At 6-foot-3, Shepard has gone from around 200 pounds when he arrived on campus to nearly 240.
Noted more for his pass receiving and blocking as a tight end during his prep career, during which he also earned accolades in basketball and volleyball, Shepard has earned his stripes as a former grayshirt with the Mustangs.
“He’s got a tremendous gift for loving the game,” Walsh said. “His passion helps him play the game, and he’s athletic for his size.
“He’s a guy that can really benefit” from playing well in the spring, “and as of right now, he’s in the mix to play quite a bit right now.”
Josh Letuligasenoa, Colin Dznubnar and converted offensive lineman Miles Williams have also impressed Walsh at defensive end.
There has also been a youth movement on the offensive line, where sophomores Derek Sabo and Nick Enriquez are looking to secure their first starting jobs, and fellow sophomore Matt Fisher moves to tackle after starting at guard last season.
Senior safeties Dave Douglas and Trevor Weis have also stepped up this spring, and defensive tackles Jason Patterson and Marcus Paige-Allen have shown well as Cal Poly looks to replace Big Sky Co-Defensive Player of the Year Sullivan Grosz.
“They’ve done some things to open our eyes,” Walsh said of Patterson and Paige-Allen. “They’re not 300-pounds guys, but they’re 260-pound guys that are real physical and fast.”
While the quarterback situation has calmed down, there is a four-way duel at kicker after Bobby Zalud graduated after handling the kicking and majority of the punting duties each of the past two seasons.
Junior Stephen Pyle, the backup for the past two years, has the experience advantage. He’s being challenged by redshirt freshmen walk-ons James Foug, Samuel Boyden and St. Joseph High product Ben Adam.
Walsh said there will be a live kicking competition during the spring game, and he expects to pare the competition down to two heading into fall camp.
As for the non-special teams action, the defense is poised for a big performance.
Offense dominated in the first scrimmage of the spring, when Graves had a 75-yard touchdown run, senior fullback Brandon Howe rushed for a 70-yard score and fullback Brent Michaels, another senior, scored from 60 yards out.
In last week’s scrimmage, the defense turned the tables.
“I think I got pretty frustrated watching the offense running over us and stuff,” Nick Dzubnar said, “and so I picked up my energy at practice. And when people pick up their energy, it’s contagious. So, I think that a lot of people stepped up, picked up their energy, had the defense rallying around each other, and after that, I thought we were really taking it to the offense.”