Former Nebraska linebacker Luke Gifford is making a positive impression in training camp for the Dallas Cowboys, enough so that he has a serious chance of making the final roster as an undrafted rookie free agent.
That doesn’t surprise Nebraska defensive coordinator Erik Chinander in the least.
“I would love to have him another year, because his best football is ahead of him,” Chinander said. “He’s a really, really good football player who had some unfortunate injuries. He understands the game, he’s physical, he can play a lot of positions.”
Jon Machota, who covers the Cowboys for The Athletic, wrote that Gifford has been garnering attention on both defense and special teams, and has been so impressive that he’s recently seen first-team special teams reps. While Dallas is deep at linebacker, Machota noted the Cowboys could keep seven on their final roster for special teams reasons, which would give Gifford an opportunity.
“There’s a lot to like about Luke,” Dallas Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett said. “He’s big. He’s athletic. He’s got a good feel for the game. He’s demonstrated toughness. I think he’s a smart guy, instinctive guy. Seems to make a lot of plays.”
Gifford played his senior season as a graduate student after graduating the previous May with a management degree. He finished the year with 62 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
Injuries, though, forced Gifford to miss the final five games of his junior season and all of spring practices before his senior season. He also missed the second half of his redshirted freshman season with a hip injury.
“We were not going to get the best football out of him,” Chinander said, referring to Gifford coming off an injury. “His best football is down the road. I think he’s going to have a nice career as an NFL player.”
Gifford isn’t the only former Blackshirt turning heads in the Cowboys’ training camp. Machota also wrote that fourth-year defensive tackle Maliek Collins looks fresh and extremely quick, and is in the conversation for having the best camp.
Although defenders aren’t allowed to tackle the quarterback to the ground, Machota wrote, Collins has been in position for several would-be sacks. He’s also no longer dealing with a foot issue.
“Every camp he’s come to, he’s had (foot) injuries,” Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli said. “One camp he didn’t, he had a terrific camp, three years ago. This guy has got pride. He’s got character. Now he’s healthy. He’s been really solid in this camp. He has showed up.”
Special Teams Making Strides
Simply put, Nebraska didn’t execute in special teams last season. Not enough to satisfy the coach who oversees those units, Jovan Dewitt.
“I can’t sit here and sugarcoat it,” Dewitt said. “I’m not going to say it was good when it wasn’t.”
The good news is that four days into fall camp, Dewitt can already see changes, and for the better.
“My heart rate’s not quite as high every time we line up to kick the football,” Dewitt said, smiling.
“I feel so much better about some of the stuff that’s going on with our guys. Just them having a base understanding conceptually of what we’re trying to get accomplished – even with the scheme work, let alone the drill work – so you feel so much better.”
In fact, Dewitt, began seeing special teams progress toward the end of last season. Some of the technique taught in practice was coming to fruition in games.
“But,” Dewitt said, “to give it an overall ‘OK’ for the entire season, I don’t think you can say that.”
Of note, Nebraska and Wisconsin are the only teams in the Big Ten West to return both their starting punter and starting place kicker. The Huskers also return their longsnapper and holder, but Dewitt is quick to point out fall camp will present a battle for starting jobs at every position on special teams.
That said, he acknowledges sophomore Barret Pickering should feel better about himself after making his final 10 field goal attempts last season.
“I feel way better about him,” Dewitt said. “You start to realize, ‘Yeah, there’s the Barret that I recruited.’ He knows more about what he’s doing. Really, his yips, per se, from the previous year, were really all based on his initial footwork. Once he realized his consistency in terms of his footwork was off, and he fixed it, that’s when he became a lot better.”
Isaac Armstrong returns at punter after starting the final seven games of last season. He averaged 43.6 yards per punt, which ranked second in the Big Ten. Nebraska also added Michigan State transfer walk-on William Przystup, a Florida native who this staff previously tried to recruit to UCF.
Przystup started the final two games of last season for Michigan State, and in fact booted a career-long punt of 55 yards on a cold, blustery day in Lincoln.
“He’s played in big-time games. He’s got the experience,” Dewitt said. “I don’t anticipate either of them to get rattled with any form of competition, either on the field or off the field. Isaac knows he’s going to have to perform if he wants to maintain being the starter.”
Coaches measure hangtime, distance and placement on every kick before, during and after practice.
“Everything is charted,” Dewitt said, “so we can have a true, analytical discussion about who’s going to be better at this versus that.”
While Nebraska returns JD Spielman as its top returner for both kickoffs and punts, a promising newcomer could find his way into the special teams mix. At the very least, freshman Wan’Dale Robinson has been turning heads on offense in practice, either at receiver or running back.
Chinander said Robinson is giving the Blackshirts “a lot of problems” in practice.
“That guy is pretty special,” he said. “I don’t know exactly what his role’s going to be or if he knows what he’s doing because I don’t coach on that side of the ball, but when he gets the ball in his hands in space, he’s a problem.”
Chinander said he likes the offensive skill players in general, from quarterback Adrian Martinez to Spielman to tight end Jack Stoll and junior college transfer running back Dedrick Mills
“I think they have a lot of tools right now,” he said.
Spielman, who has returned more punts and kickoffs than every other player on the Nebraska roster combined, has returned both a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown.