When the San Diego Chargers kick off their four-game NFL preseason schedule Saturday night in Nashville, there’s a strong chance former Cal Poly star Nick Dzubnar will be in the starting lineup.
An injury to second-year standout Denzel Perryman has opened the door for other young linebackers to earn reps with the first-team defense throughout training camp. For a player like Dzubnar, who made 414 tackles during his All-American career in San Luis Obispo, it’s an opportunity to show he’s ready for an increased role in 2016.
As an undrafted free agent last year, the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Dzubnar scratched and clawed his way onto San Diego’s 53-man roster as a special teams menace. He played in all 16 games and recorded a team-high 13 special teams tackles during the Chargers’ 4-12 season that resulted in a last-place finish in the AFC West.
“I feel completely different than when I was here last year,” Dzubnar said Tuesday during a radio interview with Andrew Burer. “The level of comfort that I have with the players, the coaches, the defense, the play book and everything like that, it’s just a whole new level of what to expect.”
With Perryman on the mend, former Notre Dame star Manti Te’o is the veteran leader among San Diego’s inside linebackers. Dzubnar often has occupied the other inside spot in the 3-4 scheme, while rookies Jatavis Brown (Akron), Joshua Perry (Ohio State) and James Ross (Michigan) adapt on the fly to life in the NFL.
The San Diego Union Tribune reported Dzubnar has looked the most comfortable in that role, noting “the workload of handling many of the first-team reps hasn’t seemed too big for him.”
Regardless of who starts the regular season opener Sept. 11 at Kansas City, Dzubnar appears in line to see significant playing time on defense. No San Diego inside linebacker has played all 16 games during the regular season since Takeo Spikes in 2012.
“You’ve kind of just got to be ready for whatever happens, because this is a sport where anything could happen at any moment,” Dzubnar said. “You don’t want to be that guy that goes in not prepared.”
That wouldn’t be Dzubnar’s style, anyway.
Cal Poly’s single-season school-record holder with 167 tackles as a senior — nearly 14 stops per game — has had to earn every opportunity since his final days in a Mustangs uniform.
After going undrafted, he was essentially a walk-on in San Diego, having to participate in an NFL mini-camp to earn a training camp invite.
Dzubnar went on to sign a three-year contract and led the Chargers with 25 tackles during four preseason games, the most among more than 280 NFL rookies credited with at least one tackle.
While Dzubnar has never been the type to seek out sympathy, he doesn’t have to look far to find teammates who can relate to his journey.
All-Pro tight end and 14-year NFL veteran Antonio Gates went undrafted out of Kent State and is widely considered a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Fourth-year safety Jahleel Addae signed with San Diego as an undrafted free agent from Central Michigan in 2013. Like Dzubnar, Addae was a special teams standout as a rookie who gained the coaches’ confidence and developed into one of the hardest hitters in the secondary in 2015.
“Seeing all those guys that were undrafted make their way and make these impacts in this league and with this team … it gives you something to strive for,” Dzubnar said. “You think to yourself, ‘I could do this.’ I could follow these guys’ footsteps, and I could play a long time in this league if I keep working the way I work and keep grinding the way I grind.”
San Diego Chargers Preseason Schedule
Game 1: Aug. 13 at Tennessee Titans
Game 2: Aug. 19 vs. Arizona Cardinals
Game 3: Aug. 28 at Minnesota Vikings
Game 4: Sept. 1 vs. San Francisco 49ers