It’s O.K. to admit your college football knowledge is a little rusty. It’s been six months since any games, and a host of stars from last year have left for the NFL. Sure, you know sensations like Deshaun Watson, Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette are back, but what about the new crop of on-the rise players? We’re here to help. Welcome of the Off-Season Spotlight, a weekly feature that will introduce you to a player you’ll want to know this fall. We’ve already looked at Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins and Washington quarterback Jake Browning. Now let’s focus on Texas sophomore linebacker Malik Jefferson.
Why is he important?
With the possible exception of true freshman quarterback Shane Buechele, who looks likely to be Texas’s starter this season, no player will bear more of the burden to revive the Longhorns than Jefferson. As the only Texas player to crack SI’s rankings of the top 100 players in the country—an indicator that the Longhorns’ overall talent is still well short of where it needs to be—Jefferson must become a national star and leader in only his second year on campus.
The good news is Jefferson showed plenty of signs of his sky-high potential last season and is one of eight starters back on the Longhorns’ defense. Still, none of the other seven is as talented as the former No. 4 overall recruit and last year’s Big 12 defensive freshman of the year. Texas ranked 70th in the nation with 5.63 yards allowed per play in 2015. If Jefferson can make the leap as a sophomore to a top-tier sideline-to-sideline playmaker, he can singlehandedly help the Longhorns improve in that stat. That could be the difference in whether Charlie Strong earns another season in Austin.
What has he already done?
As an early-enrollee last spring, Jefferson immediately worked his way into Texas’s first-string defense, earning nine starts. Despite his youth, Jefferson justified his presence in the starting lineup with 61 tackles, second most on the team, and seven tackles for loss. He proved a skilled pass-rusher, leading the Longhorns with six quarterback hurries. In addition to becoming the first Texas player to earn Big 12 defensive rookie of the year since Quandre Diggs in 2011, he also earned an All-Big 12 honorable mention selection.
How did he look this spring?
Texas’s Orange and White spring game was cut short after a half due to weather, limiting the amount of time Jefferson had to make an impact. The sophomore was fairly quiet, recording two tackles in the scrimmage.
A key question for defensive coordinator Vance Bedford is how to best utilize Jefferson’s skill set this season. Last fall Jefferson mostly played inside linebacker, an essential role but one less suited to his strengths as a pass rusher. This spring he mixed his time inside and outside. “If it’s rushing off of the edge, we’ll have 10 snaps where we put him out there and left him rush off of the edge,” Bedford told reporters in April. “We want to put our playmakers in a position to make players for us this season.”
Anything else you should know?
Jefferson’s decision to sign with Texas in December 2014 was a huge victory for then-first-year coach Strong. This off-season, Jefferson did his part to help Strong notch a few more key wins on the recruiting trail. The so-called “unofficial mayor of Austin” was critical to the Longhorns’ tremendous finish on National Signing Day that boosted their recruiting class to No. 3 in the nation, according to Scout.com. “We worked long hours just trying to get those guys,” Jefferson told ESPN.com. “And they wanted to talk to us, and that was very important. I think that’s why we got a lot of guys.”
Show the highlights!
See for yourself why the Longhorns are so high on Jefferson by watching the highlights from his freshman season.