With the most recent college football season just completed and the next one more than seven months away, this can become something like silly season.
Betting odds on title games that are almost a year out, Heisman Trophy odds immediately following a season in which two of last year’s finalists were first-year starters who took college football by storm and the national championship-winning quarterback was a freshman.
But, hey, what’s the fun in completely ignoring it? Nebraska fans have certainly noticed — and many have participated in — the optimism surrounding the 2019 Huskers. Several national outlets have included NU in “Way Too Early” top-25 polls, amid teams to watch and any other list you can dream up.
Despite all the question marks that, as things stand in mid-January, dot the Nebraska depth chart, recently graduated outside linebacker Luke Gifford is right with all those pundits that think NU can make a lot of noise come the fall.
“It doesn’t surprise me, and it’s where they should be, honestly,” said Gifford, the 2018 captain and Lincoln Southeast grad, who joined the Journal Star for a wide-ranging podcast this week.
“After seeing the changes we made the back half of the season and knowing the guys we have on the team, there’s no question in my mind — and looking at the schedule next year — there’s no reason why they can’t win a lot,” he said. “I don’t want to put a number on it, but they can win a lot of games, for sure. They’re that talented that they can do it.”
Perhaps it’s not a shock that Gifford has confidence in his former teammates. But as the 6-foot-5 245-pounder has transitioned away from playing and into preparing for what he hopes is a shot in the NFL — Gifford is training in Lincoln with Jerald Foster and Tanner Farmer and trainer Chris Slatt and recently participated in the College Gridiron Showcase in Dallas — he speaks highly of the defensive leaders and playmakers returning to NU in 2019.
Remember, the Huskers finished No. 94 nationally in total defense (433.5 yards per game) and No. 88 in scoring defense (31.3), though, the scoring average allowed improved to 24.3 per game over NU's 4-2 finish.
“I think one of the biggest things was the way that guys like (cornerbacks Dicaprio Bootle) and Lamar (Jackson) stepped up toward the end of the year,” Gifford said. “Dicap had a great year, but Lamar especially, he made a lot of strides. And then with (Mohamed Barry) in the middle and having a guy that’s been in the system and can make the calls, that’s big time. That’s something that it takes a while to get used to. Having him come back and then hopefully Will Honas comes back healthy. Then I think there are a lot of good players on the D-line.
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"Really, at every level, there’s someone that can be a playmaker.”
Gifford, like NU coaches, was impressed with the way Jackson responded to being benched early in the season.
“Everyone’s known that Lamar’s a guy that, he’s super-gifted, obviously,” Gifford said. “Really all he needed to be was pushed. I don’t know how hard he’s been pushed before or at least I’m sure that’s the first time he got benched in his life. It didn’t surprise me that he reacted the way he did, but I was really proud of the way he reacted, for sure.”
On offense, Gifford described freshman running back Maurice Washington as a tough runner who doesn’t shy away from contact and said he expects the explosive-but-slight sophomore to look “completely different” after spending a full offseason with head strength coach Zach Duval. As for quarterback Adrian Martinez, the former captain raved about the sophomore’s leadership ability and said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Martinez earn the same designation sooner rather than later.
“He’s just got something that you don’t teach and that not a lot of guys have,” Gifford said. “Sometimes it’s hard to say exactly what that is, but just the way he carries himself, the way he conducts the huddle. I think back to when The Program was here this summer and we did all that (Navy) SEAL training, just the way he handled the groups when he was assigned to be the leader of the group, he’s just a natural.
“The way he carries himself and does things is not like a lot of other people.”
Gifford watched the College Football Playoff national title game between Clemson and Alabama and considered the same question many Husker fans likely did: How far away are Frost’s Huskers to that level of play?
“It’s kind of hard to say. I think about the closest that we’ve played to that is probably Ohio State, right? And this year I felt like we were not far,” said Gifford, who will participate in NU's pro day here on March 7. “We’re almost there. Give Coach Duval and those guys a couple years — I shouldn’t even say a couple — I think it’s within reach here soon. A lot of it is recruiting — those (like the Crimson Tide and Tigers) guys get everybody every year — but a lot of it is also about development, and I think that Coach Frost and this staff will develop people at a really, really high level.”