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.”
1 of 18
Two close to call. Quarterback Tanner Lee, right, appeared to be the front-runner for the starting job, connecting on 13 of 19 passes for 199 yards and three touchdowns, none better than a 30-yard touchdown pass to slot receiver JD Spielman. Close behind was Patrick O’Brien, who hit 11 of 17 passes for 134 yards and one touchdown and got the first snaps of the game with the Reds after winning a pregame coin flip in the locker room. Lee, O’Brien, Tristan Gebbia and Andrew Bunch combined for 702 yards passing, five touchdowns and one interception on the day.
2016: Nebraska walk-on Kyle Kasun’s interception of freshman quarterback Patrick O’Brien on the final play produced the six points in the scrimmage’s scoring system that gave the defense a 46-41 victory over the offense. The Huskers racked up 343 yards on 64 carries — with the quarterbacks accounting for 162 of those rushing yards.
2015: Nebraska coach Mike Riley's spring game debut featured 408 punting yards by Sam Foltz, a bizarre safety by quarterback Tommy Armstrong and plenty of growing pains. NU quarterbacks completed 34 of 68 pass attempts, but it ended with a Gatorade bath for Riley. “I loved that,” he said.
2014: Nebraska coach Bo Pelini kicked off the spring game by carrying a cat onto the field during the tunnel walk — a nod to Faux Pelini, his Twitter parody account. Red defeated White 55-46, behind running back Imani Cross, who had 100 yards and two touchdowns on six carries.
2013: Team Jack stole the show. Midway through the fourth quarter, Husker quarterback Taylor Martinez handed off to 7-year-old Jack Hoffman — a pediatric brain cancer patient who became close friends with former Husker Rex Burkhead — for a 69-yard touchdown. Both sidelines emptied to converge on Jack, who was raised to the shoulders of a couple of players. The play was named USA Today’s “Best Emotional Moment of 2013″ and awarded the ESPY for best sports moment.
2012: Fans take shelter in the concourse at Memorial Stadium to avoid the rain. Nebraska chose not to play the 2012 spring game when a severe thunderstorm blew through the area about 90 minutes before kickoff. It was the only spring game canceled in NU's 65-year history of the scrimmage.
2011: After missing a field goal attempt for White seconds before, Brett Maher kicked the game-winner for Red, giving them a 32-29 win. True freshman Jamal Turner racked up 228 all-purpose yards on just seven touches.
2010: The Taylor & Cody show. Taylor Martinez (pictured) passed for two scores and added nine carries for 60 yards. Cody Green’s highlight was a 72-yard touchdown throw to Will Henry that showed off his arm. He finished 7 of 15, passing for 155 yards for White, but Red won 21-16.
2009: Quarterback Zac Lee finished the game with 214 yards and three touchdowns and directed Red to a 31-17 win. He completed 15 of his 18 attempts, hardly looking rattled in front of 77,670 Husker fans who had been waiting all spring, maybe somewhat anxiously, for a chance to see the team’s new leader in action.
2008: I-back Marcus Mendoza eyes the end zone, but is pushed out of bounds by Mathew May of Imperial, Neb. Mendoza gained 33 yards on seven carries in Red's 24-14 win. The Bo Pelini era began with a school-record 80,149 fans in attendance.
2007: NU quarterbacks Sam Keller and Joe Ganz combined to complete 21 of 31 passes for 350 yards against No. 2 and No. 3 defensive players. Keller and Ganz led Red to a 38-0 win. “The coaching staff obviously has a handle on this (deciding on a No. 1),” Keller said after the game.
2006: Cody Glenn, No. 34, tries to run against White Team defenders, including Phillip Dillard, No. 38, and Kevin Luhrs, No. 89. Glenn finished with 98 yards on 16 carries. Red defeated White, 35-7, racking up 28 first downs and 219 rushing yards compared to two first downs and -10 for White.
2005: Nebraska quarterback Zac Taylor is greeted by fans as he enters the field. Taylor, a transfer from Butler County (Kan.) Community College, finished 20 of 27 for 357 yards and three touchdowns, leading White to a 42-14 victory. Taylor’s 357 passing yards, and the 606 combined passing yards by White and Red, set spring game records.
2004: White's Brandon Rigoni and Tyler Fisher break up a pass intended for Ross Pilkington. New coach Bill Callahan unveiled a new pass-happy attack and set multiple spring game passing records, including attempts, completions, yards and touchdowns. Husker quarterback Joe Dailey threw 49 times for Red, completing 29 for 241 yards and four touchdowns in 35-6 victory. “I had a good time,’’ Dailey said. “It was a great day. I think there’s more to come. This is the very tip of the iceberg.’’
2003: White's Joel Jackson catches a pass and is tackled by Mark Brungardt, left, and Stewart Bradley. Defense was the theme of the day in Red's 13-0 win, led by new defensive coordinator Bo Pelini. NU defenders recorded six interceptions and three sacks, despite lining up in just one front. "I just chose to hold back," said Pelini. "It wasn't about beating the offense. All we wanted to do is have our guys lined up in a base defense and play hard."
2002: Red's Ira Cooper blocks Sam Koch's punt in the second quarter. The blocked punt set up Red's first touchdown in their 17-7 win. Junior-college transfer linebacker Demorrio Williams made a game-high 13 tackles for White, while Red's Dahrran Diedrick averaged 8.0 yards a carry en route to 96 yards and a touchdown.
2001: Thunder Collins had 55 yards on 13 carries for White, but defense ruled the day in Red's 16-7 win. The Red and White defenses combined for 16 sacks and limited the offenses to a combined 426 yards. "We feel like we made progress this spring," NU defensive coordinator Craig Bohl said.
2000: Red Team quarterback Joe Chrisman tries to escape from DeJuan Groce and the White Team defense. Eric Crouch and Jammal Lord sat out the spring game with injuries, leaving the Huskers with three inexperienced quarterbacks. White rallied for two fourth-quarter touchdowns, the last one coming on a 46-yard pass from converted split end Brett Lindstrom to Ryan Ommert with 2:24 remaining, tying Red 21-21. The no-decision marked the first time since 1950 that the game ended in a tie.