Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson walks off the field against Texas Tech during the first half at Royal Memorial Stadium on Thursday, November 26, 2015. DEBORAH CANNON / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Football

Unwilling before, Malik Jefferson says he’s now ready to lead

Sophomore LB says "I've earned my stripes"

Posted March 9th, 2016

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Story highlights
  • Jefferson played a big role in Texas signing the nation's 11th-ranked recruiting class by texting with several recruits
  • Jefferson said it was "very hard" to take a backseat and not lead the team as a freshman
  • Though he might be better served on the outside, Jefferson said he's content staying at middle linebacker

Perhaps too humble to admit it, Malik Jefferson went through his freshman season at Texas saying he wasn’t a team leader.

Now, he’s willing to open up and accept that role.

“I’ve earned my stripes,” Jefferson said Wednesday after the second practice of the spring. “I hope my teammates respect that.”

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There was never any doubt that Jefferson, a former five-star recruit and a freshman All-American at linebacker, would in time become the face of the franchise. That time appears to be now.

On a team deprived of veterans — many of whom have not accomplished much on the field — Jefferson and members of the sophomore class are taking ownership of the program. Three of them — Jefferson, defensive end Charles Omenihu and safety P.J. Locke — got involved in recruiting a 2016 class that turned heads by adding nine members in the final two days of the signing period and climbing to No. 11 nationally. Jefferson, whose own highly-publicized recruitment ended with him spurning Texas A&M for Texas, said he had talks with many recruits along the way, such as Manor’s Erick Fowler, who flipped to Texas from LSU, and also invited open dialogue on group text messaging threads.

When recruits visited campus, Jefferson was among the first players the coaching staff called on asking to be a host.

“I always tried to get the guys that I knew personally, and I tried to get some guys I didn’t know just to test my skills because communication is very important and those guys are really special kids,” Jefferson said.

It sounds like this leadership role fits Jefferson well.

Jefferson said taking a backseat to veterans during last year’s 5-7 season was challenging and doing so “changed who I was.”

“It was very hard, but I knew in my mind I had to do it, and it’s helping me now,” he said.

Though his fast-twitched skills might be better served on the outside, Jefferson is back playing middle linebacker this spring and trying to keep up with the new uptempo offense Sterlin Gilbert has brought with him from Tulsa. If someone like Tim Cole or Breckyn Hager can emerge as a reliable replacement on the inside, it might enable Jefferson to slide to the outside, or even to the hybrid Fox position.

For now, he’s content in the middle, and is up six pounds to 238.

“I don’t mind being in the position I’m in because I look at the longevity of the team and it’s all about what the team needs,” Jefferson said. “For me being (in the middle) if that’s the best position for me at this time, I have to accept it and just grow in it.”

Jefferson, the Big 12 defensive freshman of the year, said veterans on defense were frustrated last year because rookies such as Jefferson and cornerbacks Holton Hill and Davante Davis weren’t always sure of their assignments, making it so “there wouldn’t be any chemistry on the field at all.”

The result was a defense that ranked worst in school history and No. 107 nationally at 452.6 yards per game. Good days, like upset wins against Oklahoma and Baylor (Jefferson was out with an ankle injury) were balanced by embarrassing road losses at TCU and Iowa State.

“Every week, you’d go out and you’d just wonder, are we ready to play today?” Jefferson said.

As a leader, he might be closer to having those answers.

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