Nick Dzubnar fields compliments on his beard, and why not?
It’s thick. It’s lush. It’s the kind of beard an NHL player would be proud to sport during playoff season.
Give the Cal Poly senior linebacker a chance to expound, and you’ll find he grows his beard like he plays his football: with relentless aggression.
Dzubnar won the beard-growing contest with teammates last year, and he’s set on defending that title no matter what.
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“I’m getting so sick of this thing,” Dzubnar said, stroking his facial hair. “We did it last year. It was a few guys, and I was the only one to keep it all through season. It was kind of like a thing where we all said we were going to do it, and people were dropping out.”
Johnny Millard was one of the dropouts. The former Cal Poly linebacker tapped out and shaved after only a sparse showing.
“He’s so competitive, and he’s stubborn, too,” said Millard, who spent training camp with the St. Louis Rams in August and is set to make his debut with the Brooklyn Bolts of the Fall Experimental Football League. “And then as soon as you shave your beard, he won’t let you hear the end of it for about a year. I still don’t hear the end of it.”
Dzubnar’s strength is his tenacity. It’s one of the reasons the former undersized late-bloomer from Mission Viejo High could end up playing alongside Millard in the pro ranks. And the beard, well, perhaps it does have some roots from the rink.
Dzubnar considered a junior ice hockey career, but he chose to follow his father’s footsteps to Cal Poly, where he has become one of the most prolific tacklers in program history.
“He’s relentless,” Millard said. “Nick is the definition of what relentless is. Whether he’s tired or not, that guy’s going to run to the ball like it’s his only option. If someone misses a tackle, you can be sure Nick Dzubnar is going to clean it up.”
Even as the sophomore newcomer to a starting linebacking corps that included Millard and four-year starter and all-conference senior Kennith Jackson — who rank sixth and fifth on Cal Poly’s career tackles list — Dzubnar led the Mustangs with 107 tackles in 2012.
Last season, Dzubnar moved from strongside linebacker to replace Jackson in the middle and upped his team-leading tackle total to 112, and that was with Millard and Cameron Ontko racking up 108 total tackles apiece. It was the first time the Mustangs had three players with more than 100 tackles each.
This season, Dzubnar leads the FCS with 13.8 tackles per game. That includes an average of 6.4 solo tackles, which ranks sixth nationally.
With 69 tackles and seven games to go starting with Saturday’s noon showdown between the Mustangs (2-3, 1-1 Big Sky) and conference rival Weber State (0-5, 0-2 Big Sky) in Ogden, Utah, Dzubnar is a lock to notch 100 tackles once more.
If he does, he will become just the second Cal Poly player to register 100 tackles in three separate seasons since the program began officially tracking the statistic in the 1980s. The other is Jordan Beck, the program’s career record-holder for tackles who won the Buck Buchanan Award after the 2004 season and was taken in the third round of the NFL Draft by the Atlanta Falcons in 2005.
Beck’s program-leading 449 career tackles are likely safe, but if Dzubnar keeps up his current pace, he would still finish his career as the only other Mustangs player with more than 400 career tackles. He is on pace to surpass the single-season program record set by Kyle Shotwell, who captained a dominant Cal Poly defense in former head coach Rich Ellerson’s flex scheme.
Shotwell, another former Buchanan Award-winner, had 158 tackles in 2005. Dzubnar is on pace to rack up 165 by season’s end in a 4-3 front filled with first-year starters all over the place.
The consensus on Dzubnar’s tackling credits his innate feel for the game. Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said he could already tell that Dzubnar’s instinctual abilities were arguably the best on the team when he stepped on the field as a freshman.
“The most important things are instinctive things on the football field,” Walsh said. “He does things you can’t teach. He instinctively has good feel for where the ball is going to be, even in the pass game.
“Cam Ontko might be faster than him, but Nick’s instincts about playing the game of football are at a really high level, and it makes him play the game faster.”
Said Southern Utah head coach Ed Lamb: “He’s a courageous tackler. He wants to be the first guy in on the tackle, and that’s a rare skill for defenders. … There are a lot of guys that want to run to the football, be part of the pileup, but it’s a rare guy that wants to be the first one to the ball, and that’s what I see in him.”
At 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, Dzubnar is an imposing tackler. Shotwell visited campus to see his younger brother Matthew participate in Cal Poly’s youth football camp this summer, and remarked on Dzubnar’s frame.
“It was very clear to me when I got to see Dzubnar interact with some of the other guys working with counselors that he’s a man-child,” Shotwell said.
“From a physical standpoint, he’s much bigger than Jordan and I. He’s thick and stout. And he also seems to run well.”
Bigger wasn’t always the case.
Dzubnar was the scrappy small guy growing up. As a high-school freshman, he was about 5-6 and wrestled at 135 pounds. By his senior year, he had grown to 6-1 and was grappling in the 220-pound class.
Wrestling, however, wasn’t his best sport. Neither was football. He picked up roller hockey at around 6 years old, two years before his start in tackle football.
And even though Dzubnar was small, dad Mike Dzubnar said once Nick got to the ice, he played like hard-checking defenseman Scott Stevens, who had a Hall of Fame career with the New Jersey Devils.
Once, Mike said, Nick Dzubnar checked a kid out of the rink. Another victim crashed into the boards violently enough to break the glass.
“People would look over their shoulder when they had the puck,” Mike Dzubnar said, “because they knew if he came into their zone, he was going to knock them off their skates.”
The attitude came from Mike Dzubnar, who himself came to Cal Poly as a transfer offensive lineman from Mt. San Antonio College. An invited walk-on, Mike Dzubnar said he eventually left the football team to concentrate on his engineering degree.
Being a late-bloomer himself, Mike passed along the philosophy that helped him excel.
“My dad always ingrained just always being the hardest worker,” Nick Dzubnar said. “If you’re going in the corner looking for the puck in ice hockey, you’re coming out of the corner with the puck. I don’t care what you’ve got to do, who you’ve got to beat up, how big the guy is.”
But you can’t be a hockey star and stay in Southern California. By their junior year of high school, top prospects move on to junior leagues or prep schools in the northeast, and Nick Dzubnar was on track to do just that.
Then he decided to stay and play football. He received attention from Arizona and Arizona State but reached out to Cal Poly coaches and said he would commit to a scholarship offer. The family never had an open discussion about the prospect of shipping its oldest son thousands of miles away to chase hockey greatness before they were ready to say goodbye.
They didn’t have to.
Whenever the topic came up, Nick Dzubnar could sense a sadness in his father’s eyes. The same instincts that tell him to tackle told him to stay home.
“And for all those attributes, he’s a better son and a brother than he is a football player,” Mike Dzubnar said. “He’s conscientious. He worries about others. The fact he’s a captain isn’t a fluke. He’s got a big heart and a good heart.”