When The Sports Network came out with its FCS Preseason All-America team in early July, former Cal Poly linebacker Johnny Millard — now in training camp with the St. Louis Rams — was insulted to see Mustangs senior Nick Dzubnar left off the list.
From a team that included NFL signees Millard and defensive tackle Sullivan Grosz, who was the Big West Conference Co-Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, Dzubnar shined as bright as any, leading Cal Poly in tackles each of the past two seasons.
Millard said he told Dzubnar to use the perceived snub as fuel. Millard himself was left off the preseason all-conference team his senior year, and he’s still playing professionally.
“I want to follow Johnny’s footsteps and do everything he’s doing,” Dzubnar said when the Mustangs opened training camp with their first practice on Friday. “Everything is going great for him. He’s living the dream, it sounds like to me. Why can’t I do that?”
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Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh believes Dzubnar can. The fifth-year senior made a believer out of Walsh when the coach attended a Mission Viejo High playoff game to recruit Dzubnar in 2009.
The Mustangs had offered Dzubnar a scholarship and were awaiting a commitment. Walsh said he still had some questions about the linebacker watching warm-ups. Dzubnar was not the biggest or fastest. Then the game started.
“When he plays the game of football,” Walsh said, “he plays the game fast because his mental makeup and his intelligence, and he is physical.
“There’s a lot of guys out there than can run 4.65 and 4.7” in the 40-yard dash, Walsh added, “and bench 350 pounds and all that great stuff, but the way he plays the game and the passion he plays with sets him apart from a lot of people. He’s a flat-out football player. And if I’m coaching linebackers, that’s the guy I want on my team.”
A third-year starter, Dzubnar isn’t undersized at all. He’s 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, and he was selected to the preseason first team by the conference.
Dzubnar racked up a team-high 107 tackles as a sophomore outside linebacker in 2012 and followed that with another team-leading total and career-high 112 tackles after a move to the middle last season.
Dzubnar had a season-high 14 tackles against Colorado State, playing with an injured elbow he dislocated against Fresno State the previous week. The performance made the entire team take note. Now, when Dzubnar talks, everyone listens.
He also had six tackles for loss, one sack, six pass breakups, an interception, three quarterback hurries and three forced fumbles in a 6-6 campaign where the defense was arguably the top performing unit in the Big Sky.
Cal Poly was fifth overall in the FCS in red zone defense, allowing scores just 73.7 percent of the time, and led the conference in scoring defense (21.6 points per game), while ranking third in the Big Sky in total defense (360 yards per game).
The season itself turned sour when the Mustangs blew late leads against conference rivals Montana and Northern Arizona with pivotal special teams plays making the difference.
A blocked punt in the first quarter and a blocked field goal late in the fourth proved crucial in an overtime defeat against the Grizzlies in Missoula, Mont., where Cal Poly had stunned the crowd by leading for essentially all but the final minutes of regulation.
The Lumberjacks beat Cal Poly on a 96-yard game-winning fourth-quarter kickoff return in late October. Fresno State also had two punt returns for touchdowns against the Mustangs in a 16-point Bulldogs victory in the second week of the season.
So, Dzubnar was one of a few team leaders who came to coaches in the offseason and volunteered to play on special teams. Walsh said he won’t hesitate to use Dzubnar on a coverage team if the game is on the line.
A willingness and ability to play special teams could also be his ticket to finding a job.
“He’s going to have three great years of film,” Walsh said. “They’re going to like him on film. They’re going to like the way he practices. They’re going to like that he wants to be a special teams guy. To me, I think he’s got a future.”
Dzubnar’s professional prospects will likely hinge on how he performs in combine tests at his pro day next spring. So, at this point, all he’s focused on is helping the defense bounce back form the losses of Millard, Grosz, safety Alex Hubbard and starting cornerbacks Vante Smith-Johnson and Bijon Samoodi.
“We harp on the same things every single year,” Dzubnar said. “We’re not going to be the biggest defense in the Big Sky. We’re always going to be undersized, but we’re going to be one of the fastest and more ferocious. If we continue to do that, and every single guy on defense plays sideline-to-sideline ball like we have been, we’ll be fine.”