Luke Gifford has been listed as the second-string outside linebacker for each of Nebraska’s four games this season.
Luke Gifford has been one of the best players on the field for each of Nebraska’s four games this season.
“What a great, great story,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “Local guy, heartbeat of the state, that’s the kind of model — you have to have a bunch of guys like that on your team and he just bleeds it and he busts his buns every day.”
Against Rutgers (1-3, 0-1 Big Ten), Gifford, a junior from Lincoln, led the defense. He led the team in tackles (six), he had one of the team’s three tackles behind the line of scrimmage and he had one of the Huskers’ two interceptions, sealing a 27-17 win for Nebraska (2-2, 1-0 Big Ten) and silencing the whispers, at least for a few days.
“It’s really been kind of neat to see Luke’s emergence,” head coach Mike Riley said after the game. “What he’s done as a football player and earning the respect of the team. Definitely playing the best football of his life and that came from a lot of preparation and probably the physical development that he made happen in the offseason.”
Gifford started against the Scarlet Knights on Saturday. Not because outside backer Marcus Newby was out with an injury, but because he’s started every game and played almost every defensive snap this season. Again on Saturday, he was on the field for almost all of Rutgers' 53 plays.
“He played the boundary overhang for a few weeks, he played the field overhang because Marcus [Newby] couldn’t participate today, he plays in the sub-down dime and nickel, like piloting a space shuttle down in the low red, he’s our red zone player,” Diaco said. “He does so many things for our team and never says boo and keeps on straining for Nebraska. It’s pretty awesome.”
Gifford’s able to do all those things because of, like Riley said, the work he put in this offseason to bring everything together.
“This defense really fits me and just my physical ability, I think I’ve grown a lot,” Gifford said. “The game has just really slowed down for me. Sometimes it clicks when you’re young and sometimes it clicks when you’re older. For me, it kind of started this year.”
This season, Gifford has rung up 28 tackles (three for loss), half of a sack and an interception. More than his play on the field though, linebacker Mohamed Barry says he has become one of the teams’ emotional leaders.
“He’s been through a lot in this program and has never given up and has worked his way into a star role,” Barry said. “The 3-4, that position right there, that DOG position, that’s our playmaker right there. They have to be great and he’s stepped up to the challenge and made a lot of plays for us.”
Fullback Luke McNitt said it’s not about being vocal – even though Gifford rallied the team in the locker room at halftime of the Oregon game – but about leading by example. McNitt says Gifford has established himself as a tried-and-true leader of not just the Blackshirts, but the entire Huskers team, because he knows what it means to wear that “N” on his helmet, something Gifford has talked about before, and he plays like it.
It seemed fitting that, after the season the Huskers have had to this point and all the turmoil surrounding the program, the defense would end the game on an interception and it would be Gifford to do it.
It seemed even more fitting that Gifford would deflect praise for it afterwards.
“It’s been a long week,” he said. “We’ve worked hard this week so it was a good way to finish it off.”
And finishing things off was something the defense wanted to do. After the Huskers took a 17-14 lead against Northern Illinois last week, the defense finally broke and allowed the only offensive score of the day, seven points that proved to be the nail in the coffin.
“Last week we had that one drive where we had an opportunity to shut it down and we didn’t,” Gifford said.
“Then this week we give up that drive to start the game [an 11-play, 75-yard opening drive touchdown]. We knew it was it. We were making sure it was the last drive that they were going to get. Then soon as we got that lead back this time, we pointed to last week and said, ‘that’s not happening. It’s not happening this week.’”
Barry said things are coming together for the defense. The Blackshirts have calmed down, found their rhythm and the results are being seen by the sellout crowds packing Memorial Stadium. “We’re doing our jobs and the pieces are fitting together,” he said.
At the center of that puzzle, holding things together despite missing corner pieces in cornerback Chris Jones and safety Joshua Kalu, is Luke Gifford, making everything work.
12 is the best player on defense this year, up to this point..
— Kansas City Sports Academy (@KansasCity_SA) September 23, 2017
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.