Nolan Laufenberg expected the feeling to be awesome and the moment delivered in early May.
Growing up in Castle Rock, Laufenberg rooted for the Broncos in general and cornerback Champ Bailey and outside linebacker Von Miller in particular.
Undrafted out of Air Force, Laufenberg signed with the Broncos to compete at guard. He put on the helmet and No. 69 jersey for the first time at the team’s rookie minicamp.
“I grew up loving the Broncos and watching them even throughout college,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Always being a fan and being able to put on the uniform and call myself a Bronco is a pretty surreal feeling.”
When training camp opens July 27, Laufenberg, who prepped at Castle View, will be one of four Broncos from the state, joining left guard Dalton Risner (Wiggins), nose tackle Mike Purcell (Highlands Ranch) and defensive lineman Deyon Sizer (Eaglecrest-Aurora).
Laufenberg has gone from getting one FCS offer, to making first-team All-Mountain West, to earning a shot in the NFL.
“He’s as good and powerful of a guard as I’ve ever seen and he can bend, run and pull and do all the things those guys want (in the NFL),” Air Force offensive line coach Steed Lobotzke said.
Laufenberg, 22, was a three-sport athlete at Castle View — three letters apiece in football and baseball and two in basketball.
“He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached,” said Dustin Pfeiffer, Laufenberg’s coach at Castle View who is now an assistant at Chaparral in Parker. “He could play any of the front five spots. His senior year, we played him more at center only because we needed our best lineman there against some of the ‘0’ and ‘1’ technique (defensive tackles) we faced.”
The FBS offers, though, failed to materialize save for Air Force.
“Unbelievably (surprised),” Pfeiffer said. “Other staff members and myself reached out to quite a few schools and it was just shocking that they would not show interest. It was unreal.”
The Academy offered early and Laufenberg’s decision was easy after making an official on-campus visit. A grandfather, uncle and cousin all served in the Air Force.
“I didn’t think of going anywhere else,” he said.
Laufenberg embraced the schedule and discipline of the Academy. Last year, he started with classes at 7:15 a.m., wrapped up at noon or 1:30 p.m., went to football from 2-7 p.m., and had a lights-out goal of 10 p.m. Then he’d do the same thing all over again the next day.
“When I first got there, I hadn’t done anything like that ever,” he said. “It was a bit of shock at first, but once I got into it, it was awesome to be in that type of system where there is structure and you learn how to follow authority but at the same time, learn how to lead people.”
Laufenberg was able to fully participate in the Broncos’ offseason program after gaining approval from various chains of command leading up to the Secretary of the Air Force. His military commitment was deferred for five years. At that time, he can re-enter the service or re-pay his tuition if he is still active in football.
On the field, Laufenberg did not see action as a freshman in 2017 as he worked to build strength — athletes at the Air Force don’t face weight restrictions so long as they can regularly pass fitness tests.
“He wasn’t ultra-strong in high school because he was busy doing basketball, baseball and football, but he was a good athlete and that carried out through his career with us,” Lobotzke said. “We recruited the size and athleticism and worked on improving his strength once we had him.”
Laufenberg started the final seven games in ’18 (nine total) and 12 of 13 games in ’19, earning first-team all-league honors as a junior.
“(In ’19), he was powerful, he didn’t give up sacks and he moved people in the run game,” Lobotzke said. “He kept adding weight as he added strength, but he never got slower or less flexible. … He realized he could dominate and it was nice to see the switch flick for him and he really started holding himself to a higher bar.”
Last year, Laufenberg played in five of the Falcons’ six games, missing the San Jose State contest due to COVID-19 contact tracing. In data provided by Lobotzke, Laufenberg graded out at 86% for the season, including 90% against Navy and 93% against Utah State.
“In that shorter season, I think I was able to show more of what I did in the 2019 season,” Laufenberg said. “I was able to show I was dominant in the run game, we passed a little more last year so it was good to get some of that on tape and I played at a little bit heavier weight (now at 315) and was able to show I could still move well.”
Air Force runs the triple option and regularly ranks among the top rushing teams in the nation. The Falcons averaged 10 passes per game last year, which meant assessing Laufenberg’s pass protection skills was more of a projection than a verdict.
“There were questions about his pass protection just because there wasn’t a lot of it on tape,” Lobotzke said. “And when we were throwing, the defense is usually shocked as heck. I wish he would have had a full (2020) season to answer that question more thoroughly.”
Training camp will be a thorough test for Laufenberg, who must perform well to earn a practice squad spot.
“He’s an Air Force guy — it doesn’t matter what brick wall you put in front of them, they’re going to run through it,” Lobotzke said. “I trust he has what it takes in the character department to work and get it done. It will take some reps and I’m sure there will be a learning curve, but he will learn and grow.”