Two days before he announced a decision that ignited one fan base in Texas and charred another, Malik Jefferson powered down his phone and lapsed into relaxation.
Amid the calm, Jefferson, a five-star linebacker from Mesquite Poteet and the state’s top-ranked recruit in 2015, surrendered to his family’s wishes and spurned Texas A&M for Texas.
Jefferson advocates meditation. He admits to being “a yoga guy.”
“It calms your mind, ” he said.
This month, the noise has returned, increasing each day as Jefferson and the Longhorns inch closer to their Sept. 5 opener at Notre Dame.
With the possible exception of the phantom battle at quarterback between runaway favorite Tyrone Swoopes and presumed backup Jerrod Heard, Jefferson has garnered the most buzz during Texas’ preseason practices. Yet he insisted on the eve of camp Aug. 6 that he felt “no pressure at all, ” and he let it be known that his goal for this season is to be the Big 12’s defensive freshman of the year. He wouldn’t rule out being named the Big 12 player of the year, either.
Jefferson, the nation’s top outside linebacker recruit, has been practicing with the first team at inside linebacker, mostly out of necessity. Dalton Santos is out with an ankle injury, and Tim Cole has been limited because of an undisclosed injury. Even had Santos and Cole been healthy, they would have had their work cut out holding off Jefferson, who already has beefed up from 217 to 240 pounds.
“He brings a lot of noise and a lot of hype, ” said Daje Johnson, who fumbled in the spring game after being tackled by Jefferson, “but he backs it up. He’s a hard worker. He walks with a purpose.”
Though he was involved in three of the defense’s eight big plays, Jefferson graded out poorly in the spring game, earning 53 out of 100 points, lowest among the team’s linebackers. Brian Jean-Mary, Jefferson’s position coach, said his star pupil was often out of place and blew his assignments half the time. Jefferson admitted to being fatigued.
“I don’t like to make excuses, but I was tired, ” he said. “The speed of the game was an eye-opener.”
For the better part of a year, A&M was considered the leader to land Jefferson. The Aggies were handpicking from among the top recruits in the state, and Texas had the reputation of being stale, even after dumping Mack Brown and replacing him with Charlie Strong after the 2013 season. The Longhorns, though, were never out of the running for Jefferson, and their chances increased as A&M’s season imploded and the Aggies fired defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. When the American-Statesman visited Jefferson at Poteet High in December, he said he was irritated that Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin hadn’t offered any hints as to Snyder’s possible replacement.
A&M made a splashy hire, plucking John Chavis from LSU, but by then Jefferson was Austin-bound. He said recently the presence of Chavis would not have been enough to coax him to College Station.
The pied piper of his freshmen teammates, Jefferson’s presence helped Texas overcome a slow start in recruiting to sign the nation’s ninth-ranked class, two spots ahead of A&M’s group.
“If you would have asked me at this time last year, I would have said we had our work cut out to get him here because he had some other schools that probably had a better relationship with him and his family, ” Jean-Mary said. “Recruiting is not over until that first Wednesday in February.”
On the first Saturday in September, Jefferson will take the field at Notre Dame as the center of attention on defense.
“Ready to go out there and ball and do what I’m supposed to do, ” he said. “That’s what coach wants, that’s what you guys want, and that’s what the whole team wants.”
Contact Ryan Autullo at 512-445-3958.