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Nebraska football practice

Nebraska linebacker Luke Gifford prepares for practice at Hawks Championship Center on Wednesday, April 1, 2015.

If Luke Gifford retained lingering doubts about his offseason move from safety to outside linebacker, they essentially vanished during a scrimmage this past spring.

As Gifford tells it, a Nebraska wide receiver ventured across the middle of the field to catch a pass. Gifford saw the receiver in his peripheral vision. The receiver made the catch. And then, well, boom.

"Put the shoulder down and kind of laid the wood," said the 6-foot-3, 225-pound Gifford, a redshirt freshman from Lincoln Southeast. "That's when I knew what I wanted to do."

Gifford is performing at a high enough level that Nebraska coaches say he'll be a regular contributor this season, most likely in sub-packages (nickel and dime defenses). 

"He can cover a tight end. He's long," said linebackers coach Trent Bray. "We have to find spots as coaches where we can get him into games and help us."

Entering spring practice, few likely could've predicted Gifford being among the first five linebackers in the game rotation. In fact, his quick rise ranks as one of the offseason's biggest surprises.

He's come a long way since scout-team duty last season.

"You get your head beat in every play," he said.

In winter meetings, Nebraska's new coaches told Gifford they were interested in him switching to linebacker, although they essentially left it up to him, he said. Thing is, the Huskers were well-stocked at safety and thin at the linebacker spots. If Gifford was going to make an impact in 2015, his best chance would be at linebacker.

The transition was a challenge in the spring.

"There's just a lot of traffic in there (at linebacker)," Gifford said. "At safety, you're usually just coming up and making plays on the ball carrier. You're not really worrying about all those big guys. I've always liked contact, but I've never been around it that much.

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"It was something to get used to. But I think I've grown into being physical, and being ready to go every play. I like where I'm at right now."

Halfway through spring practice, Bray noticed Gifford becoming more comfortable at linebacker. He played faster.

"When we left spring camp, we thought, 'He's got a chance,'" Bray said. "This fall, he's throwing his body in there and doing some of the things he did this spring. He just keeps getting better and really wants to be good. So he's going to do anything he can."

Gifford is part of a linebacker corps led by juniors Josh Banderas and Michael Rose-Ivey. They're the veterans. True freshman Dedrick Young and sophomore Marcus Newby also are prominent in the picture.

Gifford put himself among the top five thanks in part to his willingness to add weight and strength. He weighed about 210-212 pounds when Riley's staff took over last December. But he's added 13 "good pounds," he said, and has room for about 10 more.

Still, he has to get stronger without slowing down.

At this point, I wouldn't bet against him continuing to rise. He clearly has benefited from having an excellent attitude. A standout quarterback and defensive back at Southeast, he was the first player to verbally commit to Nebraska's class of 2014, pulling the trigger in mid-March of 2013. Even back then, many folks weren't quite sure if he ultimately would play safety or linebacker.

The son of Sam and Shannon Gifford, Luke said he had a very good relationship with former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini ("I was a big Bo guy," he said). But he was committed to staying at NU even after Pelini was fired, and he took an immediate liking to the new coaching staff.

"This is where I wanted to be," he said. "No matter what, I was going to work hard. Whatever (the new coaches) wanted, that's what I was going to do.

"I couldn't be more happy than to play for them."

Looks like the feeling's mutual.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7440 or ssipple@journalstar.com. On Twitter @HuskerExtraSip.

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Husker columnist

Steven, a lifelong Nebraskan, newspaper enthusiast and UNL grad, joined the Journal Star in 1990 and has covered NU football since 1995.

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