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Linebacker Luke Gifford (left) led Nebraska with nine tackles in the season opener against Arkansas State.

FRANCIS GARDLER, Lincoln Journal Star

LINCOLN -- Turns out Nebraska defensive coordinator Bob Diaco wasn't kidding about "cooperative performance" a few weeks ago when talking about the abilities of linebackers Luke Gifford and Marcus Newby.

"We play a lot of players. We typically play a lot of players in the front in particular," Diaco said during fall camp. "So we believe in participation patterns that are functional based on (players') ability to give effort, and as situations arise, the players that can play better in that situation."

Gifford appears to be a man for many situations.

The Lincoln Southeast graduate played all 89 of Nebraska's defensive snaps against Arkansas State.

Only one other Husker defender, safety Joshua Kalu, played that many.

"That was way more than I ever played, even in high school," Gifford said Tuesday. "I didn't really even think about it during the game at all until afterwards, then they told me and it was like, really?"

Yeah, really. And Gifford played really well.

He led NU with nine tackles, including four solo stops, as he continues to bloom in Diaco's 3-4 system.

That's two more tackles than Gifford had in his first three seasons at NU, which included a redshirt year as a freshman and limited time in 2015 and 2016.

Despite being listed behind Marcus Newby on the depth chart at outside linebacker opposite Alex Davis, it was Gifford on the field to begin the game, and on the field at the end as the Huskers bowed up against Arkansas State's final two passes into the end zone.

"It was great for me, really. I haven't played in a game like that since high school, or the BYU game my redshirt freshman year," Gifford said. "Once I got settled in, especially that second half, I felt like I kind of got it going.

"And at a certain point, it's just football. Get over the 90,000 people out there and you just play."

The fourth-year junior was one of five Huskers making their first collegiate start, and NU coach Mike Riley on Monday called Gifford one of the two most-improved players on Nebraska's roster.

"He probably played a combined more plays than he's played yet for the Huskers," Riley said. "I'm really proud of Luke. He's the guy, along with Tyler Hoppes, that I'd have to include in that conversation about what's happened from January to right now. I'm excited about him."

Gifford and Newby often lined up on opposite sides of the defensive formation, which is a part of NU's scheme. Gifford also lined up opposite Davis from time to time.

"We like playing at the same time. And it could be anybody, really. It doesn't matter," Gifford said. "He (Newby) could play that side, Alex could play the other side, it's not really too big of a deal for us. We can do a lot of different things with it."

Gifford also played a handful of snaps at defensive end, getting down in a three-point stance in certain alignments.

"It's still something I'm working on a lot," Gifford said. "Pass rush I'd say I'm getting a lot more comfortable with, but I've still got to work on it against the run for sure. So it's still a work in progress."

That's perhaps the biggest key for Gifford — continuing to put in the work despite finding a home in the 3-4. The coming-out party started during Nebraska's spring game, when he had an interception and a fumble recovery, and continued through fall camp as he worked his way up the depth chart.

To that end, the 6-foot-3, 235-pounder seems to be his own sharpest critic.

"I'd say I had an OK game. I missed a couple tackles that were really big that can't happen," Gifford said. "You've got to make those plays, especially if I want to be the player I want to be and we want to be the defense that we want to have."

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