Chris Borland and Cameron Ontko used to have a running feud over which one of them was taller.
To NFL scouts, neither one of the former Wisconsin teammates is as tall as they’d prefer, but after Borland had a breakout rookie season at linebacker with the San Francisco 49ers last year, Ontko has a comparison to leverage as he prepares for Cal Poly’s pro day later this month.
Nick Dzubnar, an All-America linebacker for the Mustangs that finished second in the FCS in tackles last season, has prototype size and instincts. He has to show scouts he has the speed and mobility to play in the NFL.
The pair represents Cal Poly’s best chances to get drafted, and the work they do at the Mustangs’ scouting day on March 31 could be crucial.
Running isn’t an issue for Ontko, who started his career with the Badgers before transferring to Cal Poly in 2012 for his final three seasons of eligibility.
Mustangs head coach Tim Walsh said Ontko is the fastest linebacker he’s ever coached, and the former Portland State head coach compared him to former Vikings standout Jordan Senn, who has played the past seven seasons in the NFL and, like Onkto, was an All-Big Sky Conference first-team honoree.
Senn is listed at 5-foot-11. So is Ontko. So is Borland, who started eight games for the 49ers and amassed most of his 108 tackles after filling in for injured all-pro Patrick Willis.
Ontko has fond memories of being matched up with Borland in drills when the two were back in Madison, Wis.
Oh, and Onkto said of the two Ohio natives, he is taller than Borland.
“I still talk to him for advice,” Ontko said. “Whether it’s nutrition or talking to him about where to train and just this whole process. I make sure to stay in touch with him. He’s a very smart guy and not just on the football field. He’s a great guy.”
At nearly 250 pounds, Borland does have around 20 pounds on Ontko, but when pro day comes around, Ontko is planning to blow scouts away with his speed and athleticism.
He’s spent the past few months in San Diego, getting tutelage from renowned trainer Todd Durkin, the lead training advisor for Under Armour, at his gym, Fitness Quest 10.
Ontko said his vertical leap is up to 39 inches. He boasts excellent speed and agility drill times and recently put up elite marks in 40-yard dash tests.
Ontko said he has run 40s ranging from 4.37 seconds to 4.42, times that would have been faster than all but one or two of the defensive players at the NFL Scouting Combine last month.
Ontko’s speed is enough to have pro representatives asking him if he could convert to running back.
It’s not out of the question. Ontko amassed more than 3,000 yards and 38 touchdowns in three seasons as a runner at Cuyahoga Falls (Ohio) Jesuit High.
Whether it’s offense, defense or special teams, he just wants to get on the field.
“I just have to prove that I can play with the best,” Ontko said. “It’s going to be a little bit tough coming from a small school. Hopefully, coaches can see past that and see my numbers and see my position drills and see that I can hang with NFL-caliber guys.”
Dzubnar is 6-11⁄2 and 245 pounds, and as if his single-season school record 167 tackles weren’t enough to get him drafted, he has an excess of terrific game film to sell himself after leading Cal Poly in tackles for three years running.
Like Ontko, Dzubnar has also been talking with NFL representatives, and they all want to know the same thing.
“They’re thinking I’m pretty stiff in the hips and had questions about how I move laterally,” Dzubnar said. Running the 40 “is going to be my biggest thing and especially the drills after the testing.”
Cal Poly’s pro day will begin in the morning with height and weight measurements before bench press and leaping tests in the weight room. By noon, the participating seniors will head out to the field for 40-yard dash testing and conclude with agility drills aimed at testing lateral movement, acceleration and change-of-direction ability.
The latter tests will be crucial for Dzubnar. He’s aiming for a sub-4.7-second time in the 40 and respectable, and perhaps even impressive, times in the other drills.
The point of it all is to get into an NFL training camp, which will surely come as priority free agents for both Ontko and Dzubnar if they are passed over in the draft. Then it’s all about impressing coaches on the practice field, which figures to be Dzubnar’s strength.
“To me,” Walsh said, “if you see the football player in him, you’re going to love him. That’s what we saw in high school. To watch him play live just solidified how he plays the game.
“He’s just one of those guy who works hard. He’s a blue-collar work-ethic guy. He’s a better athlete than he gets credit for, and he’s one heck of a football player.”