If Luke Gifford is churning inside as the NFL Draft nears, he hides it well.
He emits feelings of calm and confidence because he firmly believes he’ll be in an NFL team’s rookie mini-camp early next month.
He took pre-draft visits to New Orleans and Minnesota, and Detroit visited him in Lincoln.
“But I’ve talked to probably 25 teams throughout the process, some more seriously than others,” the former Nebraska outside linebacker says. "It’s been good. It’s just hard to say how teams will interpret my injuries. A lot of times when they bring you in on a visit, most of that is just to make sure they can check out your medical history.”
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Gifford this past season appeared fully recovered from a hip injury that sidelined him for the final five games of 2017.
“Some teams probably think it’s a big deal and want to know for sure, and other teams not so much because I played my full senior year,” he said. “So it’s not like I haven’t come back from it. It’s not like I’m not strong and healthy now. Honestly, I think I have a decent chance of being drafted in the late rounds. If not, then I’ll definitely be a priority free agent.”
So, there you go. Dating as far back as August, Gifford felt confident he would be in position to be selected in the draft. His confidence could be appealing to NFL teams.
If the Lincoln Southeast graduate in fact hears his name called by an NFL team, it probably would be Saturday. The draft begins Thursday night in Nashville with the first round and continues Friday with the second and third rounds.
Rounds four through seven are Saturday.
“I believe if I would’ve played my full junior year, I probably would’ve been drafted for sure,” said Gifford, who this past season led Nebraska in sacks (5.5) and tackles for loss (13). “I don’t think it’d even be a question. I got to a point during my junior year where I felt as long as I came back healthy in 2018 and didn’t have any problems, I definitely would get this opportunity.”
Playing in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system in 2017, Gifford started each of the first seven games and finished with 39 tackles, including five for losses. He set the tone with a nine-tackle performance in the opener against Arkansas State. He recorded at least one tackle for loss in five straight games before going down with the hip injury.
“I’ve always had a lot of confidence in myself," he says. "I knew what I could do and what kind of player I was, I just hadn’t gotten to do it. As soon as I started seeing results (in 2017), I felt like, ‘This is who I am, this is the type of player I can be.’”
He finished with 62 tackles overall in 2018. He also caused a fumble and had seven quarterback hurries.
Bottom line, he was the team's most disruptive defender and most reliable tackler.
He then showed well last month during Nebraska’s Pro Day. He expected to show well. After all, he said, he’s tested well his whole life. In fact, he basically knew what sort of results he would post before the workout. His 40-yard dash time — clocked in the high 4.5s and low 4.6s — was faster than safeties on hand.
He did 23 repetitions on the bench press and jumped 35 inches in the vertical.
“Obviously, there’s pressure to go out there and perform at a high level, but that’s the type of stuff I’ve thrived at since I was a sophomore in high school,” Gifford said. “It was more fun than anything, to be honest with you.”
There was stress leading to Pro Day in learning how to get off to a quick start in the 40. But Chris Slatt, his Lincoln-based speed trainer, helped with that. Gifford says Slatt is a genius in the way he tailors certain training elements to fit an athlete's need.
Gifford has put in the work. Now it’s just a matter of waiting. Even though his demeanor is calm, he makes it clear that playing in the NFL has been his dream since boyhood.
“Shoot, when I was in first grade and they asked you what you wanted to be, I drew a picture of a guy throwing a football,” he said.
Yes, he wanted to be a quarterback.
“But thank goodness that didn’t work out in high school because I wouldn’t be playing still, I don’t think,” he said.
During Gifford’s sophomore season at Southeast, junior Najee Jackson beat him out for the starting QB job. Gifford, though, earned a reputation as a hard-hitting safety.
He moved to linebacker at Nebraska in time for his redshirt freshman season. He kept getting bigger and stronger. He overcame injuries and finally put it all together last season. He proceeds with a blue-collar approach that could be appealing to NFL teams.
The same could be said for Gifford’s former Husker teammates, wide receiver Stanley Morgan and running back Devine Ozigbo. You see their names pop up in mock drafts, generally as Saturday picks. They’re expected to be the first Huskers taken.
Gifford keeps an open mind. He did all he can to show teams why he could be valuable, which is why he may feel a sense of peace as he watches the draft with relatives from his family’s cabin on Sandy Pointe Lake near Ashland.
“Just kind of hang out and see what happens,” he said, fully confident it’ll be something good.