For more than four years, Kenny Mitchell has had a locker right next to Nick Dzubnar’s, and in those close quarters, the Cal Poly football teammates can be candid about their hopes and dreams.
Dzubnar, a fifth-year senior linebacker who’s on pace to become the Mustangs’ all-time single-season tackles leader, wants to be remembered as one of the best.
“That’s one thing he’ll mention every now and then after a workout or a practice,” said Mitchell, a fifth-year senior slotback. “He’ll say I want to win that Buck Buchanan. Beside winning, that’s one of the things he wants, his name to be held amongst the middle linebackers.”
The Buchanan Award is given annually to the most outstanding defensive player in the FCS, and Tuesday, Dzubnar was added to the 19 other players to the watch list for this season’s honor.
From 2004 to 2006, Cal Poly dominated the award. In 2005, Mustangs defensive end Chris Gocong won it after setting an FCS record with 23.5 sacks.
In 2004, middle linebacker Jordan Beck won the award after setting Cal Poly’s career record with 449 tackles, and in 2006, another middle linebacker, Kyle Shotwell, won the Buchanan after setting the Mustangs’ single-season mark with 158 stops.
Dzubnar, who’s led Cal Poly (4-3, 3-1 Big Sky Conference) in tackles the past two seasons in addition to this one, is putting up numbers comparable to those accomplished players before him.
Leading the FCS with 14.6 tackles per game, Dzubnar is on pace — with 102 tackles so far — to break Shotwell’s program record by the end of the regular season, and the Mission Viejo High product goes into Saturday’s game against No. 7 Montana (5-2, 3-0 Big Sky) having just tied his career high with 19 tackles in a 56-27 win at Sacramento State.
Cal Poly head coach Tim Walsh said he was shocked Dzubnar didn’t start the season on the Buchanan Award watch list, but “I think he had to go out and earn his stripes, and that’s who Nick is. He’s one of those guys who earns his stripes.”
“He’s the catalyst of who we are on defense. If we don’t have Nick Dzubnar, we’re not playing as well as we’re playing on defense right now.”
The biggest difference for Dzubnar this season is that he’s playing on a defensive front that came into the season largely untested.
Dzubnar could be seeing an uptick in tackles — he had 107 in 2012 and 112 last season — because of all the inexperienced players around him.
But while some critics may point out his propensity for finishing off tackles in pursuit, Dzubnar is also racking up solo tackles at a prolific rate.
With 6.1 solo tackles per game, Dzubnar ranks third in the Big Sky and eighth in the FCS. To coaches and teammates, the fact he’s also in on many assisted tackles is an attribute, not a drawback.
“He’s fearless,” Mitchell said. “He plays with good instincts, and he believes that he’ll make every tackle, which is a great attribute for a linebacker.”
Said Walsh: “He gets to the football on almost every snap. I can guarantee it when it’s between the tackles, there’s not a lot of assists there. He is what we want as our mike linebacker, there’s no question about it.”
Dzubnar also put on an undeniable display of athleticism in the victory over Sacramento State. He teamed with Chris Judge on a sack of Hornets quarterback Garrett Safron and had his fourth career interception and first of the season, which he returned 38 yards to set up a fourth-quarter touchdown.
Dzubnar also fielded an onside kick attempt by Sacramento State that he returned 30 yards to the Hornets 14-yard line.
It was the longest kick return of the season for the Mustangs, and served as further proof that Dzubnar is not simply compiling tackles. Walsh believes his speed and athleticism could surprise pro scouts when the time for NFL Draft and free agent consideration comes next spring.
While it’s usually prudent for the hands team to down the ball after an onside kick, Dzubnar’s instincts are usually correct, too.
“Some things come down to instincts in football,” Walsh said. “Was it the smartest play or not the smartest play, I’m not going to say, but it was a great play.
“It’s about making plays, and sometimes you have to have courage to make a play and know when to do it and when not to do it.”