During Nebraska’s annual high school coaches clinic this past weekend, linebackers coach Trent Bray was discussing his group when he singled out one player who had been maybe the biggest surprise of all so far this spring.
Luke Gifford, a former safety recruit out of Lincoln (Neb.) Southeast who moved to linebacker after his redshirt first season, has made as many gains at the position as anyone, Bray said.
On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco - who has shown he’s not one to gush praise on just anyone - echoed those sentiments.
“Luke possesses the tangible traits to do those jobs really well,” said Diaco, who works directly with NU’s linebackers along with Bray. “He’s a long-level athlete who’s quick and fast, and then you combine that with a hard worker who’s very smart.
“He’s got good football intelligence and can translate meetings to field and field to meetings, so he just gets better every day. I anticipate him being an impactful player on defense this season.”
Maybe the biggest difference for Gifford this year has been the fact that he’s completely reshaped his body since first arriving on campus in 2014.
After coming to Nebraska as a 205-pound defensive back, Gifford is now a 6-foot-3, 240-pound linebacker who said he feels stronger and more confident than any point in his career.
“I think most of it came in the offseason, honestly,” Gifford said. “Just getting my body where it needed to be weight-wise and strength-wise has made a big difference from last year.
“I think that’s been the biggest help, because I’ve always been able to cover and things like that. But then being able to play in the box and use my hands, having that strength helps a lot.”
The other main factor in Gifford’s big jump has been Nebraska’s transition to Diaco’s 3-4 defensive scheme. While he felt good in NU’s previous 4-3 system, it required him to spend significant defending in the box.
Under Diaco’s defense, Gifford rarely plays in the box and instead gets to utilize his coverage skills, which he said are his biggest strengths.
“I think it suits me really well, because in the past scheme, I was still in the box sometimes playing at outside (linebacker),” Gifford said. “But now I’m hardly ever in the box.”
As things stand right now, Bray said senior Marcus Newby is the No. 1 field outside linebacker with Gifford behind him.
However, Gifford has been getting his share of first-team reps this spring, especially the past few practices while Newby has been out following the birth of his child.
"Luke is really pushing Marcus, and I think that’s great for Marcus and it’s great for Luke," Bray said. "It's going to make us better."