The first time Nolan Dambacher officially stepped on the field as a Nevada Wolf Pack football player in 2013, he recorded a tackle against eventual BCS national champion Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Fla.
Nevada lost 62-7, but that was an experience Dambacher will never forget, and it marked the beginning of his Division I college career.
Dambacher earned a spot on the Nevada Wolf Pack traveling roster last season, which can be viewed as an accomplishment, considering the 2012 Sonora High graduate is a walk-on and not under scholarship.
In all, Dambacher, as a redshirt freshman, appeared in six games on special teams and lined up at defensive end for three of those clashes.
The burly 6-foot-3, 245 pounder started on punt return for half the year as Nevada went 4-8 overall and 3-5 in the Mountain West Conference while playing one of the toughest out-of-league schedules in the nation in head coach Brian Polian's first year at the helm.
Nevada suffered its first non-winning season since 2007 and missed out on a bowl game for the first time in nearly a decade.
But for the former two-way Wildcat starter, 2014 marks a new year and a new opportunity to earn more playing time on the gridiron.
(Editor's note-Dambacher sat down withUnion Democrat sports reporter Vongni Yangon Tuesdaybefore he is scheduled to report to fall campon Sundayafternoon in Reno.)
UD: You finally got to play in a live game in over two years last season, what was it like to get those reps?
ND: It was a long time coming. Taking a whole year off was tough, but I'm glad I took that whole year off. I'm so much more mature now than I was straight out of high school.
UD: How much have you grown as a player since leaving Sonora High School?
ND: Tremendously. I'm so much bigger and stronger now. I know so much more about the game. I'm so much more mature as a person and a player. I mean, just getting to play at this level with some of these guys, I didn't get to see this in high school. The game is so much faster. Everyone is so much bigger. The difference between now and high school is unbelievable.
UD: When you were being recruited by Nevada, did the coaches tell you they were going to convert you from linebacker to defensive end?
ND: That was part of the recruitment process. Coach (Barry) Sacks, he came up here and he obviously watched my film. He liked what I did at linebacker, and they needed defensive ends, so he asked if that was alright with me, if I wanted to switch, so I said, 'Yeah.' It's definitely different than linebacker, but by now, I've gotten used to it. This will be my third year at defensive end. I mean, it's actually pretty similar in different ways. It's fun though. I enjoy it a lot more than I thought I would.
UD: Initially, was it difficult to switch positions?
ND: It was pretty difficult at first because I was so used to being behind the ball and reading things. At defensive end, I have to anticipate a lot more and just kind of go with the flow, instead of, at linebacker, I got to read the play and things would happen before. Now, I'm at the defensive line, I'm the first one to make contact. So, I set up for the linebackers.
UD: What was it like to be able to travel and play with the team last season?
ND: The traveling was a huge deal. They left behind a whole bunch of players. They could only travel around 60 players. Traveling was very fun. I got to travel to UCLA and Florida State. I got a chance to experience a lot of cool places, and play at a lot of neat places.
UD: What was it like to see Heisman Trophy winner and Florida State QB Jameis Winston play in person?
ND: I got to see him play and actually shook his hand after the game. He's unbelievable. He's fast and big. He's a lot bigger than you think.
UD: Was it a big deal for you to be a member of the traveling roster?
ND: Yeah, especially as a walk-on, I still don't have a scholarship and they left behind a lot of scholarship players, and I traveled ahead of them. I think they only took around four walk-on players from the whole team. I was one of them. I was happy I was able to do it.
UD: Do you think you have to prove yourself every day since you're a walk-on?
ND: Definitely, you definitely have to, especially with this new coaching staff. They came in not knowing anything about anybody. So, when you're a walk-on, they don't know your background, they didn't talk to the old coaches about how you played and stuff. I definitely feel I have to prove myself a little more than everybody else because everyone else has scholarships and I don't.
UD: What special team units are you projected to start on this upcoming season?
ND: As of right now, I'm on punt, punt return, kick return and kickoff.
UD: Heading into fall camp, are you getting reps at defensive end with the first, second or third teams?
ND: For defense, I'll be practicing with the second team. I rotate in. There's three of us fighting for two spots right now for second string.
UD: Is the team returning an experienced group at the defensive end spots?
ND: It's definitely an older group. Brock Hekking, he's our starter, the guy I'm playing behind on the right side, he's a senior. Ian Seau, he's starting on the left side, he's a junior. The other two, we have another senior who is second string and another junior, and then me.
UD: Now that you're entering your third year in the program, will it be an easier transition for you as you head to fall camp?
ND: It'll definitely be a lot easier to transition into it because now I know what to expect. Even last year, even though it was my second year, it was a whole new coaching staff. You weren't sure what to expect. This year I'm more confident. I'm kind of one of the older guys. I'm going to be a sophomore. It's going to be my third year here. I have a lot more experience than a lot of the guys coming in, so I'll know what to expect and what I have to do.
UD: In the spring game earlier this year, you registered three tackles, including one for a loss, did you have a good spring?
ND: I had a good spring. I think I improved a whole lot over this past spring. Even the difference between this spring and last spring is pretty big too, so yeah, I competed for a spot and I definitely think I got my nose in there. I think I made a name for myself.
UD: What is your strongest attributes as a player?
ND: I think my toughness - I know I'm not the biggest guy out there, I'm not the strongest, I'm not the fastest - but I'll stick my nose in there no matter what. I'm not scared of anybody. I'm not scared to get dirty. I like to hit, so I definitely think that's a strong point.
UD: Can you describe the level of play in Division I football?
ND: It's big, fast and physical. I don't know how else to put it. It's different than what I expected coming in as a freshman, and everyone is bigger. Everyone is faster. Everyone is physical, but generally, the biggest thing is how fast everyone is. It's pretty amazing though, especially when we played Florida State, how unbelievably fast everyone was. Even their 300-pound tackles, they were even fast. That's probably the most amazing thing is how fast and big everyone is.
UD: Are you a pretty big weight-room guy?
ND: I love the weight room, which is good, you have to love the weight room to play at this level. They make everything mandatory, but you definitely have to enjoy working out or you're not going to make it. We meet four days a week for two-to-three hours. We're working out, running. I enjoy lifting weights. It's definitely helpful.
UD: Are the challenges for a walk-on different from a scholarship player?
ND: I was able to come for fall camp as a freshman, which is good, they don't allow everybody to come for fall camp. Even this year, they only invited probably three-quarters of the team back for fall camp. And the rest of them, they can come back for the season. They're only allowed to have a certain number, but at least I felt the challenge was I had to prove myself more to try to earn a scholarship, even though that's not really on my mind, just playing time.
UD: Are you excited for fall camp and the 2014 season?
ND: I'm very excited. I can't wait. I'm just ready to go prove myself more. This should be a good year for me if I could stay healthy. I'm excited for fall camp. There's a battle going on for positions right now. I'm excited for the challenge.
UD: This will be the program's second year under head coach Brian Polian, do you think the team will be more comfortable with his system?
ND: Yeah, I think we'll be more comfortable. The thing last year, we weren't sure what to expect. Obviously, our coach, it was his first year of being a head coach at any college, so I think the team and him are all getting used to each other now, and we know how he does things and what he expects from us. I think he's learned a lot on what he should improve on as a coach and we learned a lot on what he expects out of us, and what we need to do more as a team.
UD: Does the defense have a battle cry?
ND: Our motto is, 'We hunt. We eat.' So that was a new thing that coach (Scott) Boone, our new defensive coordinator, brought in. It's his big thing. We like to have a physical reputation too.
UD: Are you proud that you get an opportunity to represent the University of Nevada?
ND: Definitely. I'm very proud. We have great tradition there. I think over the last decade or so, we've definitely made a name for ourselves in the Division I world, especially on the west coast. We made a name for ourselves and people want to come there now. Nevada's a lot more popular now than what it used to be, and that's really all thanks to coach (Chris) Ault. He built the program, but yeah, I'm proud. We play some big schools and we hold our own against a lot them.
UD: Are you ready for the upcoming season?
ND: I just want the games to get here already. I'm excited to play in the games. Fall camp, that's just something you have to do. I mean everyone has to do it. It's the toughest time of the year, but I'm just excited for the season to get here. I been training for around eight months now, the whole team is getting tired of lifting weights and running, everyone wants to get on the field and go hit somebody and get to playing football again.
UD: Have you set any individual goals yet?
ND: My goals for this year is do well on special teams right now and prove myself at defensive end. I think I'll definitely be getting more reps and I'll be getting a chance to prove myself in games this year. Really, just contributing to the team more and getting the team to a bowl game.
UD: How did the team feel after missing the postseason for the first time in nearly a decade?
ND: The team was pretty disappointed. We definitely had a very tough schedule last year, but there's no excuses for us. That's the first time in about eight years Nevada hasn't been to a (bowl) game. Everyone was a little disappointed to have the year end a little early, especially having a losing record, but that just makes everyone more excited for this year to come. So, we can prove ourselves and get back to a bowl game.