As Nebraska's Luke Gifford prepares to play linebacker, his impact on defense may be at hand

Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco has been impressed with Luke Gifford. “I anticipate him being an impactful player on defense this season,” he said.

LINCOLN — With his left hand heavily wrapped and in a cast for the last seven spring practices, Luke Gifford stands out at a glance.

But a closer look at the safety-turned-outside linebacker has many within the Nebraska program bracing for a breakout. One big reason: The former Lincoln Southeast standout appears ideally suited for the pass-coverage demands his position requires within the new 3-4 defense.

Gifford starred at safety in high school and joined the Huskers at the same spot before moving to linebacker during his redshirt freshman season in 2015. Lately, spring workouts have felt like something of a throwback for the junior with more responsibilities that include dropping back with the likes of slot receivers, running backs or tight ends.

“What I do out there has always been my strength, which is covering,” Gifford said. “In the last scheme. ... I was in the box just as much as I was out. Now I’d say I spend most of my time out of the box, which I think fits my skill set pretty well. Obviously you’ve got to be able to play in the box and use your hands and be physical and all that stuff, but this defense I think fits me pretty well.”

The “hands” part of the equation has been something of an adventure for No. 12 after breaking one in the third practice — an unpadded one — March 9 trying to swing his way past a blocker. Gifford said he’s tried to use the protection to his advantage at times, though he expects to have it removed sometime in the next week.

He’ll be happy to be done with the club-like look, he added, though he plans to wear something on the hand for the spring game regardless. In the meantime, he laughed that he might have to take better advantage of the contraption during practice.

“If Jerald (Foster) keeps talking trash ...” Gifford trailed off, talking about the Nebraska left guard.

Gifford has gotten more looks of late with NU’s No. 1 defense, thanks to a mix of merit and luck. The field-side linebacker is participating with the top unit in place of senior Marcus Newby, who “went down” with an injury recently, and continuing to play his brand of quick and physical football.

His efforts garnered praise from multiple coaches Tuesday. Linebackers coach Trent Bray said Newby is still the lead linebacker at his position, but Gifford is close. Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said the defender has all the traits needed for a position that asks a lot.

“He’s a long-lever athlete who’s quick and fast and then you combine that with a hard worker who’s very smart,” Diaco said. “He’s got good football intelligence and can translate meetings to field and field to meetings. He just gets better every day. I anticipate him being an impactful player on defense this season.”

Gifford recalled Bray contacting him about a week after Diaco was hired in mid-January. We want you at about 240 pounds, Bray told his player who went at 225 last year.

“I was like, ‘Oh shoot, time to eat,’ ” said Gifford, who stands 6-foot-3. “I told my mom, I called her up, I was like, ‘Hey, you gotta start making dinner. I gotta come home for dinner.’ But it’s worked out well so far.”

For spring momentum to carry into the fall would mean plenty to Nebraska’s first commit from the 2014 class. He appeared in the first six games of 2015 and made seven tackles before a hip injury derailed his progress. With a talented linebacking corps ahead of him last season, he saw the field in four games and made one stop.

Gifford said Diaco’s demands of the outside linebacker position — as well as the coach’s own personality — have kept him motivated and believing a bigger role is in his future.

“My biggest thing has been being consistently physical in the way I play,” Gifford said. “I think with Coach Diaco, you don’t have a choice. That’s the best thing that could ever happen to me because I’d flip it on and off sometimes in practice and that was usually the thing that kept me off the field, to be honest with you. With Coach Diaco, that’s not an option.”

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