By most individual measures, Nick Dzubnar’s first season in the NFL as a member of the San Diego Chargers was a complete success.
With the franchise playing under yearlong speculation of its impending relocation to Los Angeles during the offseason, San Diego went 4-12 overall and finished last in the AFC West for the first time since 2003.
Yet Dzubnar, the former Cal Poly All-American linebacker who dominated the Big Sky Conference for three straight years, found a way to carve out an important role on the Chargers’ special teams units.
After going undrafted and signing a three-year free-agent contract with San Diego last May, Dzubnar repeatedly displayed in training camp the intangibles that made him a star in the Mustangs’ green and gold.
His relentless effort and tireless energy paved the way to a spot on the 53-man roster, a position Dzubnar refused to relinquish for the remainder of the season. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker was active in all 16 regular season games and recorded 15 tackles during his rookie campaign.
“I think I’m kind of looking at it more as a redshirt freshman year, really,” Dzubnar said during a phone interview Monday. “Just contributing on special teams in any way I can and hopefully work into the defense sometime next season.”
Cracking an inside linebacker rotation that includes a rising star in fellow rookie Denzel Perryman and veterans Manti Te’o and Donald Butler doesn’t happen overnight. But given Dzubnar’s impressive body of work on the football field to this point, there won’t be many people betting against him.
During the Chargers’ four preseason games, the Rancho Santa Margarita native recorded a team-high 25 tackles, the second-highest total among the more than 280 NFL rookies credited with at least one preseason tackle, according the NFL.com.
Just a few months earlier, Dzubnar was completing a remarkable senior season at Cal Poly when he made a school-record 167 tackles, bringing his career total to 414 stops — No. 2 on the Mustangs’ all-time list.
Getting to his first NFL offseason has been a two-year process that began during fall camp at the Upper Sports Complex in 2014 and ended earlier this month in Denver against the Peyton Manning-led Broncos at Mile High Stadium.
In between, there was his on-campus Pro Day, the NFL draft, training camp, and the anxiety-filled wait to find out if Dzubnar made the initial 53-man roster.
“This is really the first break I’ve had in like two years,” Dzubnar said. “I’m really just enjoying this, relaxing, and kind of realizing what it’s like giving your body time to heal.”
While Dzubnar played fewer snaps as a rookie than he did in any of his four years roaming sideline to sideline at Cal Poly, one NFL collision is enough to sideline a player at any moment. Perhaps that makes Dzubnar’s active status for all 16 games that much more impressive.
He played a season-high 14 snaps during a Week 7 loss to the Oakland Raiders and recorded five tackles after Perryman, the Chargers’ leading tackler, went out with an injury. Dzubnar said he played in a few goal-line defensive packages throughout the year, but his main focus remained on special teams.
“To be undrafted and stuff like that, it was really nice to be active for every single game,” he said, “and play in every game and contribute somehow in every game.”
When asked what some of Dzubnar’s favorite memories were from his first NFL season, it was hard to narrow down a few. He said the Week 6 trip to Lambeau Field to play the Green Bay Packers was one of the more exciting games the Chargers played away from Qualcomm Stadium.
Through all the collegiate and professional success, Dzubnar said it’s still hard to fully appreciate being an active member of a sports league that generates billions of dollars in annual revenue.
“The whole thing is just insane,” Dzubnar said. “I still can’t believe that I’m an NFL player and I’m associated with the NFL and I get to go travel with some of the greatest athletes to play with.”
Dzubnar said his immediate offseason plans for January included “some yoga and some light running and maybe some light lifting,” but mostly he’s looking forward to a few calm weeks away from the game.
As for the Chargers’ immediate and long-term future, the plans seem murky at best.
The Los Angeles Times reported Monday that league officials and owners are meeting this week in Houston to discuss relocation, saying there was a consensus building within the league for the Chargers and St. Louis Rams to share a stadium in Inglewood.
Tuesday afternoon, ABC reported the NFL relocation committee recommended a joint bid between San Diego and the Oakland Raiders to build a $1.7 billion stadium in Carson. It remains unclear whether any decisions made by the owners this week will be final, the report said.
Dzubnar, who lives in San Diego, not far from the team facility, said the players don’t know much more than the general public.
“We’re pretty much just waiting around,” he said, “listening for the word.”
So for now, there’s some more uncertainty on the horizon.
And that’s nothing new for Dzubnar, who seems to find success wherever he goes.
“I’m pretty anxious to start getting back to the facility,” Dzubnar said. “Get back to the weight room and start hitting this thing hard for next season.”