Vongni Yang, The Union Democrat

For the first time in Nolan Dambacher's football career, he was regulated to the bench.

Dambacher spent his entire 2012 freshman season as a redshirt at Division I Nevada. The 19-year-old had to watch home games from the stands and away games on TV.

"It was pretty tough for me," said Dambacher, a 2012 Sonora High graduate. "When you're watching your teammates play and you want to be out there to contribute, but you can't. It's hard. It's a lot different watching your team play while you're not. I was used to playing a lot."

Dambacher was a two-year varsity starter for Wildcat head coach Bryan Craig. In his senior year, he was a two-way player, starting at linebacker and fullback, where he earned first-team All-Valley Oak League honors at both positions.

"Nolan was that hard-nosed, blue-collar player for us," Craig said. "He was a hard working, hard-hitting solid player. He's going do what you ask him to do and he's going to do it right and he's going to go at it hard."

Dambacher excelled as a senior, and shortly after graduation, was asked by College Football Hall of Fame head coach Chris Ault and the Nevada coaching staff to join the Wolf Pack football program as a preferred walk-on.

Unlike a scholarship player, where room and board and tuition's all paid for, a walk-on is responsible for their own college expenses.

"It's kind of challenging though, being a walk-on," Dambacher said. "It's kind of difficult for tuition and stuff."

But when players huddle on the field, Dambacher said, that everyone is treated equally and fairly by the Wolf Pack coaching staff, regardless of their walk-on or scholarship status.

"It's hard to tell the difference," he said. "If you're good enough to play at this level, then you can play."

Although Dambacher didn't get to strap on his pads last season, he said the time off from the field on game days was beneficial to his growth and maturity as a college football player. He spent most of his freshman year acclimating himself to the speed and competitiveness of the Division I level sport.

"I learned a ton," Dambacher said. "Being a redshirt, especially in your first year, it's kind of like learning the ropes. It's a huge step from high school to college. Just learning how they do things. I learned the whole defense. That was a big thing for me too."

Dambacher was virtually a scout team defensive player as a redshirt, after converting from linebacker to defensive end.

"I was going against the first-team offense everyday in practice," he said. "Most of the times, it was 75 percent speed. That was kind of challenging. Every week we had to learn the opposing team's defense - mimic what they did. It was a lot of fun."

With a new coaching staff at Nevada this spring, Dambacher had the opportunity to impress his new coach Brian Polian, the son of former Indianapolis Colts vice chairman Bill Polian.

In the second spring scrimmage, Dambacher made seven tackles, and during the 2013 Silver and Blue spring game, he said he had a productive outing.

"I had a pretty good spring," he said. "Four weeks of straight practicing. Spring game, I had 10 tackles and three sacks. I just went out there and did my thing. Gave 100 percent. I just gave it my all."

Brian Polian replaced Ault, the creator of the famous Pistol offense, earlier this year after he retired at the conclusion of the 2012 season.

Dambacher said that the 38-year-old Polian packs a lot of enthusiasm and fire as a coach.

"Polian brings a whole new energy," he said. "He connects more to players. He just brings a lot of energy and new things that we like as players."

Since the end of spring camp, Dambacher has been dedicating himself to get better as a player on and off the field. He has been working out with the team in Reno this summer, conditioning, lifting weights and running three times a week, and participating in drills to improve his footwork, speed and stance twice a week.

"I've been living in the weight room," he said. "Living in the stadium. Just to get in shape for the season, so we don't have to worry about that later."

Dambacher's main goal for his upcoming redshirt freshman year is to catch on with the special teams unit, and whatever happens after that is a plus.

"That's the best way that I can get playing time as a freshman," Dambacher said. "I'm really looking on getting on most of the special teams and just be in the mix at defense end."

Since arriving at Nevada, Dambacher has bulked up from 220 pounds to 245 on his 6-foot-3-inch frame. He wants to add five pounds before the the start of the 2013 season.

"I've gained a lot of weight," Dambacher said. "It's all good weight too. It's not fat."

Dambacher credits his high school coach for his progress so far, and for helping mold him into a responsible young adult.

"He taught me, basically everything, to play defense," Dambacher said of Craig. "He kind of developed me to where I am today. He did a lot for me. Now that I looked back at it, he taught me a lot. How to be a leader. He developed me as a linebacker; developed me as a football player and helped me play a different position."

That support from Craig and, also his family, have motivated Dambacher to work even harder this season towards earning a scholarship. He reports back to Nevada Sunday, Aug. 4, and the start of fall camp begins the next day.

"I'm very excited," Dambacher said. "Fall camp, it's very, very tough. It was kind of a shock for me last year; how hard it was. But I'm very excited to keep proving myself."