Husker columnist

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

Luke Gifford

Luke Gifford is listed at No. 2 at the field-side linebacker spot behind senior Marcus Newby.

Luke Gifford is largely uninterested in discussing what his future as a college football player might entail.

It's time for action, he says, not words.

It's time for Gifford to become more than just a bit player in the Nebraska program.

It's time for the junior from Lincoln Southeast to show the level of physicality and consistency necessary to make his mark as an outside linebacker in first-year Husker defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 system — which, by the way, seems to suit Gifford well.

Thing is, you get the distinct feeling Gifford doesn't want to hear too much talk about how well he might fit in the scheme.

"It's time to actually do something," he said flatly.

It's clear Gifford feels urgency as Nebraska pushes through spring practice. After all, it's his fourth year in the program. And, remember, he was the first player to verbally commit to the Huskers' class of 2014, pulling the trigger way back in mid-March of 2013.

But for all his waiting, for all his behind-the-scenes work, he has eight career tackles to show for it.

So, yeah, time to make a move.

It's time for Gifford to make a serious push for the starting job at the field-side outside linebacker spot. He began the spring No. 2 on the depth chart behind senior Marcus Newby, who has 55 career tackles and a total of 10 starts over the past two seasons.

When every practice — indeed, every repetition — counts in a position battle, a player can lose ground quickly if he misses too many chances. Which is why Gifford has been practicing with what amounts to a club on his left hand. He broke it during a routine drill March 7, when he put up his hands to battle a blocker, and immediately felt the pain.

However, "I've already missed enough time in my career here," he said, referring mostly to a torn labrum in his hip that sidelined him for the second half of the 2015 season and even lingered into the summer of 2016.

"If I can wrap (the injured hand) up and go, I'm going to be out here working," he said.

The team medical staff essentially told him it was his call.

"I went out that first day (Saturday) and gave it a try, and I can still get the job done," he said.

The 6-foot-3, 240-pound Gifford spoke to a reporter following Tuesday's full-pads practice at Hawks Championship Center. He was simultaneously upbeat and matter-of-fact.

He should be upbeat because there is no question his foremost attributes as a defender are well-suited for outside linebacker in a 3-4.

"I think it does probably fit me better than the previous scheme," he said of Mark Banker's 4-3.

Gifford's size — particularly his height — is helpful in his pass-rushing duties. And his overall athleticism is beneficial because his coverage responsibilities often take him into open spaces against a variety of players. He might be assigned to a slot receiver in zone coverage. Or he might be matched man-to-man against a running back or bigger and taller tight end.

"It varies," said Gifford, a standout quarterback and defensive back at Southeast. "The one thing about Coach Diaco's defense is it's so multiple. There are so many different things we can do."

Nebraska linebackers coach Trent Bray praises Gifford's recent progress.

"Even with the club on his hand, he's making a great effort to do the things that have kept him off the field," Bray said. "It's about physicality, consistency. But he's done a really good job so far this spring, and I hope he can keep it up.

"He put on a lot of weight in the offseason. He's almost 240 now. A year ago, he was probably around 215 or 220. But he's still running and moving well. It's exciting to see Luke kind of step up and step out of that shadow."

Gifford thinks back to 2015, when he appeared in the first six games and had seven tackles before injuring his hip.

Last season, he said, he played in only four games simply because the players in front of him, including Newby, were performing better.

"I was close," he said. "I mean, one injury to someone and everything could've been completely different. But now, it's just a matter of trying to get from where I was at (in 2015), and all the hype, to a point where I'm actually out on the field making plays.

"No offense, but I'm tired of talking about it."

Nothing wrong with that.

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


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