Luke Gifford never heard his name called during the 2019 NFL Draft.
“I would have loved to get drafted, obviously,” Gifford told Hail Varsity. “But I think there's a lot of good that came from going undrafted and getting to choose my own destination.”
That destination was Dallas. The Cowboys called with an undrafted free agent deal that guaranteed Gifford a base of $50,000 with a $5,000 signing bonus. While he suffered a couple of injuries in his rookie season—a high ankle sprain in Dallas’ preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers and then a fractured left arm in the Week 15 matchup with the Los Angeles Rams—he proved to be a valuable addition to the Cowboys’ roster. It’s why the team protected his player rights by keeping him on the regular season roster after that first injury.
Meet Luke Gifford, the undrafted rookie linebacker who’s turning heads in #CowboysCamp. 👀
Just say, 🗣“Alexa, Open Dallas Cowboys!” pic.twitter.com/gLMHAgOgfZ
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) August 3, 2019
It makes sense. He had one interception, one tackle and one pass breakup before the ankle sprain took him out. He appeared in six games over the season before Dallas placed him on the injured reserve list on Dec. 17.
Gifford couldn’t have known any of this when he signed that UDFA deal in late April of 2019. What he did know was that he’d have to battle like any other player on the roster. That’s how it goes for anyone in the NFL Draft, but especially for those taken after the third and fourth round.
“That was one of the things I learned pretty quickly was that it really didn't matter if you were drafted high or where you were drafted, you were still going to have to come in and compete at a really high level in order to make the team,” Gifford said. “At the end of the day, you just got to take control of what you can control, and the rest will take care of itself.”
For several former Huskers, they’re now hoping for a similar shot in the NFL. Four were invited to participate in the NFL Draft Combine—defensive linemen Darrion Daniels and Carlos and Khalil Davis, as well as cornerback Lamar Jackson—but there are plenty more with NFL dreams beyond that group. That includes linebacker Mohamed Barry.
Gifford and Barry spent four seasons at Nebraska together—starting in 2015—so when Barry reached out, Gifford was all ears. He knows what it’s like to be in Barry’s shoes, which is why Barry has asked for that advice. For Gifford, it’s been fun to talk and share perspective with his former teammate.
“I just tell him, at the end of the day, I'm pretty sure he's going to get an opportunity in whatever form that comes in,” Gifford said. “Whether he gets drafted, whether he's a free agent or whatever, but Mo is this kind of guy that can succeed because he works so hard and he wants it so bad. What I tell him is, at the end of the day, he's going to get his opportunity that he wants, and he can do as much with it as he wants to.
“I think that's the comforting thing. For Mo, he knows that when he gets the opportunity, he's going to work harder than anybody and he's going to dedicate himself to it. I'm excited for him.”
As for what actually happens for the former Huskers when the NFL Draft kicks off on Thursday, April 23, it’s anyone’s guess. CBSSports recently released a full seven-round mock draft and only a pair of Huskers were included: Jackson and Khalil Davis. The mock draft had Jackson selected by the Las Vegas Raiders with the 17th pick of the third round and Khalil by Washington with the 15th pick of the seventh round.
But it’s hard to know. More former Huskers could go off the board than expected, or maybe not. Nebraska didn’t have a player drafted in 2019, ending a 56-year streak, despite predictions that there’d be at least one.
That’s why Gifford thinks it’s less about what happens over those three days and more about what happens after. For the former Huskers hoping 2020 is their year to get the call, Gifford knows it doesn’t really matter whether a player is drafted or not. It’s about the work that comes after and the confidence one has to make dreams a reality.
“I think, honestly, one of the things that helped me most was just having that chip on my shoulder and knowing, at the end of the day, what kind of player I am and the things I can do and the places I can get to,” Gifford said. “You just have to be confident. That's one of the biggest things. When you get there, it's pretty intimidating.
“But at the end of the day, you are there for a reason. If you're not confident in yourself, then you can't stick around for very long.”
Erin is the Deputy Editor and Digital Marketing Strategist for Hail Varsity. She has covered Nebraska athletics since 2012, which has included stops at Bleacher Report, Cox Media Group’s Land of 10, and even Hail Varsity (previously from 2012-2017). She has also been featured on the Big Ten Network, NET’s Big Red Wrap-Up, and a varsity of radio shows nationwide. When not covering the Huskers, Erin is probably at Chipotle.