Malik Jefferson transitions from freshman to leader

Tyler Horka

Sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson timed the snap perfectly.

He flew past Notre Dame’s offensive line and laid a massive hit on Fighting Irish running back Josh Adams, putting an exclamation point on his nine-tackle career debut on Sept. 5, 2015.

But Jefferson doesn’t focus on his numbers from last year’s matchup. Nor does he hone in on the highlight hits he delivered. The team lost 38-3 against the Fighting Irish. And that’s the only stat Jefferson thinks about.

“I know I had a lot of success that game,” Jefferson said. “But that didn’t mean anything to me. We still lost.”

Though he said he tries not to talk about the past because he can’t do anything about it, he hasn’t forgotten the 35-point beat-down to the Fighting Irish. In fact, he said he still feels “bitter” about the loss, and he looks back at the film to make sure the outcome is different on Sunday.

“I’ve watched it multiple times,” Jefferson said. “Throughout the summer, throughout the year, I watched that game because I knew it was important to me.”

While last year’s Notre Dame matchup might be the cornerstone of Jefferson’s film study, it isn’t the only game he revisits. Jefferson said he’s a wiser player because of the extra time he spends watching game tape. 

“Film is super important,” Jefferson said. “We put in a lot of time as a team. I put in extra time just watching little things. That’s the key to the game.”

Longhorn nation pushed Jefferson into the limelight before he even stepped on campus last year. Recruited from Poteet High School in Mesquite, Texas, Jefferson came into the program as Texas’ most-touted recruit in the class of 2015 — he ranked as the top recruit in the state, according to 247sports.

But Jefferson has handled the spotlight well, according to senior linebacker Timothy Cole.

Cole has four career starts in four years to Jefferson’s nine in one, but the senior has been around long enough to know Jefferson is “wise beyond his years.” He said Jefferson doesn’t give outside buzz any consideration. 

“I don’t think he pays attention to all of that,” Cole said. “With success on the field comes [what] I guess you could call the fame outside the field. But his main focus is just winning football games.”

Texas didn’t do much winning in Jefferson’s freshman year, compiling a 5–7 record. But it wasn’t for a lack of effort from Jefferson — he earned Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the year honors after amassing 61 tackles, seven of which were for a loss.

Since his high school days, Jefferson has been able to lead by example with his play. He racked up accolades in Mesquite, including an invite to the 2015 Under Armour All-America Game. 

But he still feels he can improve as a vocal leader.

“I think I could have been [more] vocal last year,” Jefferson said. “I just think I didn’t put myself in that situation.”

Senior safety Dylan Haines is a more vociferous player who isn’t hesitant to speak his mind. After getting blitzed 50-7 by TCU last October, Haines called out his team for “not preparing like [they] should be preparing.”

But he wasn’t speaking of Jefferson. In fact, Haines said Jefferson seems poised to become a forthright player on top of being a natural playmaker.

Jefferson isn’t programmed to flaunt his ego, according to Haines. Instead, he simply suits and lets his play do the talking — which Haines said marks a true leader whether Jefferson speaks up or not. 

“I think now he’s at that point where he’s comfortable being the face of the program,” Haines said. “I think everyone in the locker room respects him — you have to.”