- Brian Jean-Mary says Jefferson could be in mix of best linebackers he's ever been around, will stay in the middle for now but could be a pass-rusher on the edge.
- Jefferson has put last year behind, didn't watch a single bowl game and has no explanation for what wrong in loss to Iowa State.
- Defensive coordinator Vance Bedford prefers tamping the brakes on Jefferson's expectations.
Malik Jefferson’s always been in a rush.
He got here in a hurry, arriving on Texas’ campus in January of his senior year at Mesquite Poteet as the nation’s No. 4 recruit. He made a quick impact, making a name for himself in his first college game with nine tackles against Notre Dame. By season’s end, he was cited as the Big 12’s freshman defensive player of the year and has been named the league’s overall top defensive player this preseason.
Oh, and he can get to the quarterback in a hurry as well.
Entering his second season, Jefferson’s hardly in any mood to slow down.
However, the action’s slowing down for him as he better grasps a middle linebacker’s duties in the context of the entire defense, and his own coaches wouldn’t mind putting the brakes on the outsized expectations for the sophomore.
Asked if Jefferson could eventually become the greatest linebacker in school history with apologies to Tommy Nobis and Derrick Johnson, defensive coordinator Vance Bedford rightfully sniffed, “He is only a sophomore.”
It just seems he’s been here longer.
Even his position coach, Brian Jean-Mary, kidded about the choice of Jefferson as the top Big 12 defender, “I told him it’s like a check with $1 million on it. There’s no way to cash that check. It’s an honor, but he’ll be judged off what he does this season.”
Jefferson wasn’t taken to Big 12 media days in Dallas and hadn’t talked to the press until Tuesday. And he was in no mood to discuss last year. He didn’t watch a bowl game last post-season.
“Bitter,” he said.
There are few Longhorns — and perhaps none — more candid than the 19-year-old who has become the face of Charlie Strong’s program on a daycare of a roster that screams underclassmen.
Jefferson’s first season ended much as it began. A demoralizing opener against Notre Dame, and no bowl at the end intermixed with blowout losses against TCU and Iowa State. “I couldn’t say anything about the Iowa State game because, honestly, I still don’t know.”
The game in Fort Worth was the topper.
“We folded,” Jefferson said.
Strong language from a young man whose stature and confidence grows by the day. But that’s Jefferson, an intense sort who looks questioners in the eye, yes-sirs and no-sirs them and doesn’t shy away when it comes to accountability. A conscientious type who relishes speaking out on societal issues like campus carry and says, “Having the platform football players do, it’s something we need to be involved in. I’m the one who likes to speak out on stuff like that.”
Jean-Mary applauds strong stands by athletes in today’s culture and says Texas doesn’t “want them to be robots. We don’t try to muzzle them, but tell them to be very conscientious of what they say.”
Jefferson relishes debating the issues of the day and has made it clear he’d love to return to Mesquite and make an impact on the community, whether it’s politics or social work or business.
For now he’ll stick to football. He’s a prototype linebacker at 6-3, 238 pounds of speed, more muscle and fiery resolve, but he might be better-suited as an edge pass-rusher.
So could he end up there?
“I don’t know,” Jefferson said coyly. “That’s up to Coach Bedford. You know how he likes to blitz.”
In fact, he’s better-equipped to play on the edge, but his coaches are a bit reluctant to move him from the middle, especially with so little proven experience up front.
“There’s a little bit of that,” Jean-Mary said. “Charlie always wants to have his better players in the middle of the field. Oh, we’ll put him in different positions because he’s got a good skill set.”
The emergence of Anthony Wheeler and a freshman or two could allow Jefferson to move outside at some point.
Asked if Malik would be the team’s best pass-rusher, Jean-Mary said, “I wouldn’t put him at the top right now, but he would be in that mix. We feel we have some edge guys who will be pretty good.”
They’d better be. A committed defense with eight returning starters, coupled with a mean streak, is badly needed from last year’s horror show. If not, there will be no bowl game in 2016 either.
And how does Malik see himself differently now?
“Wiser,” he said.
He does exude confidence. In his speech. In his body language. In his play on the field, where he had 61 tackles last year and could evolve into the Big 12’s best defender this year, right?
“That means nothing,” he said.
Perfect answer from a player who’s not yet perfect, accolades aside.
Of course, Jean-Mary, who calls former Dallas Cowboys star Dexter Coakley the best linebacker he’s ever been around, says “there’s no doubt” Jefferson could join that company.
“Just based on mentality and athletic ability, those are two of the biggest factors,” he said. “He’s got the makeup to be very, very good. He can be as good as a linebacker as I’ve ever been around. He’s definitely not the finished product. You can’t fix it all in one year, but you can fix a lot.”
But he’s not what’s broken.