Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Isaac Gifford Fully Bought In and Making Plays this Spring

April 20, 2023

The defensive back room is arguably the deepest and most experienced on the team with 12 juniors and seniors in addition to an underclassman with starting experience in Malcolm Hartzog.

A coaching change can be particularly difficult for those with a lot of snaps under their belt, but Coach Matt Rhule said junior Isaac Gifford has has fully embraced the transition and is already making plays on the practice field.

“He had an unbelievable, unbelievable play,” Rhule said. “He ran the alley, and we teach running to the ball a little differently, we teach them different angles than maybe some guys are used to or they’ve been taught before, and he did it like clinic tape. So that’s what I’m looking for, I’m looking for older guys who have had success to continue to buy into something new. 

“I’ve said it a million times, it’s really hard. If you haven’t had success and we come in and we’re doing new things, it’s really easy to buy into that like maybe this will work for me. But older players who have had success, it can be hard to buy in, because like ‘What I’m doing is working for me, so why would I change it?’ Seeing Giff do that was awesome. He’s bought into this. He’s a good, tough, physical player that can make plays on the ball, smart. I love the fact that he’s buying in not to the overall program, but just the specifics of how we want to play the scheme.”

The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Lincoln Southeast product said he’s been working at the rover position, the hybrid safety/linebacker spot in coordinator Tony White’s defense.

“There’s a lot of freedom to that,” Gifford said. “I enjoy that … Just in the time that I’ve played it, you’ve really got to know the defense and you’ve really got to know the offense and it really frees you up to make a lot of plays. The more you know the offense, the better you’re going to play.” 

Gifford started games at both nickel and safety in previous coordinator Erik Chinander’s defense, and he said that experience has helped a lot as he’s transitioned to his new role.

“I play in the box too,” Gifford said. “So a lot of that nickel stuff really applies and my experience at safety, getting to play those last two games at safety, it really translates to this.”

Gifford has also leaned on his brother Luke, who made the move from the Dallas Cowboys to the Tennessee Titans this offseason, for advice every day.

“He’s going through the same thing right now with the Titans,” Gifford said. “I talked to him today about how everything’s just different. You’ve just got to adjust and learn on the fly, and that’s all you can do.”

Gifford agreed with his coach that the transition hasn’t been easy after spending three years doing things a certain way, but he’s all in on Rhule’s philosophy and way of doing things.

“If you can’t get all in, you’re just never going to make it … Coach Rhule said something the other day, he said, ‘Change comes with struggle,’ and I totally believe that,” Gifford said. “In order for us to change as a program and change our culture, we have to struggle, and we have in these last five weeks and winter conditioning. We’ve gone through a lot, so it’s starting to change.” 

Gifford said he loves working with White and new position coach Evan Cooper. The toughest part of the spring has been adjusting to new terminology and points of emphasis as the concepts are fairly universal but the way of eating them can be unique to whoever is doing the teaching and calling the plays.

One change the defensive players have enjoyed, however, is Rhule letting the quarterbacks go live in certain situations as opposed to being completely no-contact all spring. That being said, the contact is a two-way street and Gifford famously got caught off-guard by a punishing block from Heinrich Haarberg.

“It’s great,” Gifford said. “If you’ve seen the video, I get blown up by Heinrich. You’ve got to get used to them being live once in a while because sometimes you just kind of forget they’re live. But it is, it’s good and it’s good for them to get those hits in early now before the season starts.”

Gifford said he couldn’t remember every being allowed to hit the quarterbacks in practice at linebacker, quipping that the defense had to give Adrian Martinez at least 3 years of space.

The quarterbacks will be live again on Saturday for the Red-White Spring Game as Rhule announced on Thursday. Gifford said the players are all excited to cap off their spring in front of the fans at Memorial Stadium

“Everybody’s ready to get out in front of fans and play some football,” Gifford said. “It’s been a long five weeks, so everybody’s pretty pumped.”

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