Luke Gifford has fought back to 100 percent healthwise, which is significant news for Nebraska’s football team.
For his good health, Gifford is eternally grateful. But the senior outside linebacker also is thankful for the wisdom he accumulated as he rehabilitated a hip injury that sidelined him for the final five games of 2017.
A Lincoln Southeast graduate, Gifford watched from the sideline during the Huskers' entire spring season. It was difficult at times, he says, but there were big-picture benefits.
“I learned a lot of things, actually — a lot about our team — just being able to see it from a different viewpoint,” he says.
One aspect stood out.
“Everybody talks about accountability and how it had been a problem the last few years,” he says. “When you’re a player, people tell you it’s a problem, but you don’t necessarily see it. You don’t see it like a coach would. But being able to see it from the outside, it was very, very evident.”
People often ask what went wrong as Nebraska slid to 4-8 last season under Mike Riley, who was ousted as head coach a day after the final game. Obviously, a lot went wrong during Riley’s three-year tenure, but a lack of accountability among players surely would rank near the top of any list.
Once Gifford was able to leave the vortex of the storm, during rehab, that deficiency became clearer to him.
“I think being able to see it from that viewpoint, and the way (first-year strength coach) Zach Duval and (first-year head coach) Scott Frost talked about it and started changing things, really helps me understand what needed to be done,” says Gifford, who started each of the first seven games last season and made 39 tackles.
Listening to Gifford, Duval’s importance becomes evident. Duval makes it a point to teach leadership methods, Gifford says, and the overarching message is that it can’t be only the coaches who put their foot down when necessary.
Players have to lead. To be sure, Tom Osborne long has said that was a defining trait of his 1990s national championship teams.
“The biggest thing I think about is when you see these great teams like Ohio State and Oklahoma and Alabama, you know that those guys are policing themselves,” Gifford says. “I think in the past few years — don’t get me wrong, we had some good leaders — but there were a lot of things that were allowed to slide that shouldn’t have been let go. The coaches were the ones who had to say something, and that’s not the way it should be."
One example I've heard from sources is that players too often were allowed to skip workouts due to relatively minor physical ailments.
“If you’re going to be a good team, you have to have guys who respond to leaders and leaders who are willing to put their foot down," Gifford says. "But there’s a time to get on somebody and there’s a time to be positive. I think there’s been a big misunderstanding, maybe, over the last few years of kind of how to lead.”
That’s where Nebraska’s new coaches come into play.
“Definitely during spring ball, a lot of it came from Coach Frost,” Gifford says. “But we spend so much time with Coach Duval, so that’s where we get a lot of our teaching right now, because we’re in the weight room all the time.”
Frost’s staff has ample credibility because of the turnaround it orchestrated at Central Florida. Gifford and most of his teammates know the story well, and hope for similar rise-from-the-ashes success.
The 6-foot-3, 245-pound Gifford just might be a candidate to help lead Nebraska. The fifth-year senior played well last season before his injury, his five tackles for loss ranking second on the team even though he missed the final five games.
The former high school safety is rangy and known as a big hitter. He also has a certain savvy that could help him nail down a starting job — a savvy that comes in part from playing for four different defensive coordinators.
“I’m old now, and I’ve been in a few defenses,” he says. “I’m kind of to the point now where I’ve learned that Cover-3 is Cover-3. It’s just how are you going to get into it and what are you going to call it? There are a lot of things that carry over from defense to defense. It’s just new words and new ways of doing things. I’m fortunate enough that I’ve actually had the experiences I’ve had with different coordinators, that I can kind of put everything together.”
His array of experiences is critical because his mind won't race like it does for so many players who are learning a new system.
His return to full strength also is key. He craves a chance to play a full season without a significant injury. He’s had only one such season at Nebraska, as a redshirt sophomore in 2016, though he played sparingly.
He thinks he’ll fit well in defensive coordinator Erik Chinander’s 3-4 system.
“I think it’s more a pro-style defense — more attacking, maybe more blitzing, just different ways of doing it,” Gifford says. “I’m super-excited.”
Yes, of course, he prefers to be in the middle of the storm.
But his time outside of it could prove beneficial.