Saturday’s game against Arkansas State was a new experience for junior outside linebacker Luke Gifford.
The Lincoln Southeast product played in six games as a redshirt freshman before suffering an injury that cost him the rest of the season. As a sophomore, he played in four games. Heading into the 2017 season, he had made eight tackles in his career.
Against the Red Wolves, Gifford more than doubled that per-season average, leading the Huskers with nine tackles while playing nearly every snap on defense — somewhere in the area of 90 plays.
“It was way more than I think I ever played in high school,” Gifford said. “It was a lot.”
Gifford’s extensive role on Saturday was somewhat of a surprise, even to the linebacker himself. After all, he was listed as second on the depth chart at field outside linebacker behind senior Marcus Newby.
“I didn’t even really think about it during the game at all, until afterwards when they told me,” Gifford said. “I was like ‘Really? I didn’t know that.’ It was a lot of plays. I was definitely sitting in the ice bath on Sunday.”
Though Gifford was listed behind Newby — after a hard-fought position battle during fall camp — the two actually started the game together. During the course of the game, Gifford lined up all over the field, shifting around based on who the other linebackers were on the field.
“We like playing at the same time a lot, and it could be anybody, really; it doesn’t really matter,” Gifford said about sharing the field with Newby. “He could play that side, Alex [Davis] could play the other side, it’s not really too big of a deal for us. We can do a lot of different things with it.”
Throughout the game, Gifford lined up at both outside linebacker spots as well as at defensive end in a four-man front. He dropped into coverage, set the edge against the run and went after the quarterback. Now listed at 6-foot-3 and 235 pounds, Gifford has come a long way from when he was working at safety during his redshirt year.
Lining up with his hand in the dirt is a bit different than what Gifford is used to, but it is something he’ll get plenty of chances to do in Bob Diaco’s defense.
“It’s still something I’m working on a lot, obviously,” Gifford said. “The pass rush I’d say I’m getting a lot more comfortable with but I still have to work on it against the run for sure, so it’s still a work in progress.”
Gifford was fairly modest in his self-evaluation.
“I’d say I had an OK game,” Gifford said. “I missed a lot of tackles — not a lot, but a couple that were pretty big that can’t happen; I’ve got to make those plays especially if I want to be the player that I want to be and if we want to have the defense that we want to have. For the first game, it was pretty clean overall.”
Coach Mike Riley was a bit more effusive in his praise for Gifford, saying the linebacker was one of the players who made the biggest jump from last season.
Oregon is going to post a much stiffer test than the Red Wolves did last week, however, and as well as he did during week one Nebraska is going to need even more out of Gifford in order to knock off the Ducks.
Week one made it very clear that Gifford is going to be relied upon extensively in Nebraska’s 3-4 defense.
Even though he’s still listed as a second-teamer on the depth chart.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.