All the lonely days of rehab, all the talks with teammates, all the interviews with media, all the grueling offseason workouts once he was healthy, it all comes to a head Saturday night for Luke Gifford. 

The Lincoln guy playing for Nebraska's team will burst out of the tunnel with his teammates in the northwest corner of Memorial Stadium a little before 7 p.m. And while Gifford this week has tried to put into words what that moment will mean, it will likely be quite different when the time actually arrives.

"Man, I'm super-excited. Even this last weekend for the Boneyard Bash and having the students out, you can see the excitement is outrageous," Gifford said earlier this week. "I'm really excited for this weekend."

This, of course, is Gifford's last go-round in the scarlet and cream. A graduate of Lincoln Southeast, Gifford has just his senior season to make up for lost time after a hip injury cost him the final five games of what was turning into a breakout junior season.

He watched from the sideline as Husker football crumbled over those final few weeks of 2017, allowing 24, 31, 54, 56 and 56 points in the games Gifford missed.

Then he watched as Scott Frost and his staff were brought in to clean up the mess. He listened to coaches say that every position was up for grabs no matter the experience or talent of any one individual.

He heard, and he understood.

“The film from a 4-8 season doesn’t mean much, you know? You made some plays, but you were 4-8,” Gifford said in the spring. "So I have a lot to prove. I’m coming in here, starting from square one and I wouldn’t have it any other way. That’s the way I expect it to be. I’m ready to roll.”

If those sound like the words of a leader, Gifford hopes they are. He did his best to lead from the sidelines while hobbled, and now is learning to lead on the field as he's gotten back into the fray.

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"It was a grind. I didn't really know what to expect, to be honest, and I'm just grateful to be able to get the chance to do it again. To be out there Saturday with the boys, that's all I can ask for."

He has undoubtedly earned the respect of his teammates after earning back his starting job at outside linebacker.

"I think leadership is one of those things we’ve always got to work on with guys, especially when they miss a long period of time due to injury," said Jovan Dewitt, Gifford's position coach. "I think he’s gaining comfort in that leadership role, and the more — I think once Luke understands that the more of a leadership role he takes, the better off we’re going to be as a defensive unit."

Gifford's leadership might be tested right away. Even Frost admitted he'll be "jacked up" coming out of the tunnel to 90,000 red-clad maniacs who have had all day to properly prepare themselves for the historic moment.

With more than 50 new players on the roster, and a whole bunch of coaches who have yet to experience Memorial Stadium in full throat, those who are able to keep a clear head will be of great value.

"You know it's tough. We've got a lot of young guys. So as the older guys and the vets, it's important for us to stress that. There's going to be things that happen and adversity, things that might not go our way," Gifford said. "But we've got to keep a level head. It's not easy, man. There are 90,000 people out there screaming and yelling. It's important to keep your head and know that you just have to play the next play. It's always about the next play."

The next play will be the first play in a new time in Nebraska football. Luke Gifford is ready. And as a native son, he knows the rest of the state is, too.

"It's the start of a new era, and since last January, there has been all this excitement that's been built up," Gifford said. "I'm happy for the state, our fans and our team, really. Everyone has been working their tails off since Coach Frost got here. It's all finally here, so it's exciting."

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7436 or On Twitter @HuskerExtraCB.