“Welcome back,” Texas Longhorns head coach Charlie Strong told his would-be star linebacker, sophomore Malik Jefferson.
The face of the program and the conference’s supposed top defender in 2016 had finally returned after spending weeks astray.
“Ever since that Notre Dame game, I was too high on myself,” Jefferson said on Monday.
In the double-overtime thriller, Jefferson led the team in tackles with eight, including a sack, but never humbled himself afterwards.
“Never brought myself down to that phase where you continue to try to get better. I wasn’t trying to get better. I thought everything would be handed to me, and I had to realize you have to work for things.”
The big-headedness from a player always known for his humility and grace was surprising, but it was clear from Jefferson’s effort and results on the field that he was merely going through the motions.
His stunts into the line of scrimmage lacked desire, he allowed quarterbacks to get through his grasp on would-be sacks at a rate of about one per game, and he showed little interest in taking on blocks in the running game.
While clearly miscast in the middle linebacker position, Jefferson nonetheless demonstrated no apparent want-to in games like the Kansas State loss, in which the number of times he was totally blocked stood at 12, along with four missed tackles.
So the Texas coaches were left little else to do other than what the state’s No. 1 prospect in 2015 had come to believe was unthinkable — bench him.
And it wasn’t even Strong who delivered the news. Instead, it was linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary.
And, as the saying goes, “the film don’t lie,” so there was no room to hide when Jean-Mary and Jefferson sat down to watch film together. The former five-star prospect recognized that he needed to change his attitude and start producing on the field.
“He sat down and watched the tape and it was obvious,” Strong said.
Normally hard on himself, Jefferson also had some tough talks with his family, who are harder on him than he ever is, a conversation that he said “brought a lot of darkness to light” in the effort to get him re-centered.
His mother, Teresa, even drove down from Dallas, booking a hotel where Jefferson stayed for two nights. She read critical stories written about him. She quoted scripture. She challenged him to lead through his actions.
As a motivational tactic, the subtle little jab by Strong not to deliver the news of Jefferson’s demotion directly also worked as intended — the newly-minted second-string middle linebacker said it surprised him a bit, “but it got me going.”
However, since every player faces a crossroads in those moments, as Strong noted on Monday, there were no guarantees that Jefferson was going to take the right path, even though it’s hardly surprising that he quickly opted to fix things.
With the sophomore finally set to earn his spot on the field again, he had to wait a few plays before he replaced senior Tim Cole against Baylor. The performance was far from perfect, featuring more missed tackles, including on another potential sack, but also featured much more effort.
The effort paid off — against the Bears, Jefferson recorded 2.5 tackles for loss, two sacks, a quarterback hurry, and nearly matched his career high with 10 tackles.
Jefferson also had a would-be touchdown on a fumble recovery called back at the end of the game on an extremely questionable call of a forward pass on Baylor quarterback Seth Russell’s ill-advised pitch.
Last week, Strong credited his lack of ego for helping him respond.
“The good thing you have with him is he's not a guy who's headstrong, he's not a guy that has an ego, and you can talk to him,” said the Texas head coach. “You can sit him down and show him what he's not doing and how much better he can be, and so him coming back, bouncing back the other night just shows his character and just really -- he wanted to prove, ‘Hey, Coach, I'm going to show you what I can really do,’ and he went out there the other night and played a really good football game.”
As happy as Strong was with Jefferson’s performance, he still had to set some expectations to keep him locked in after watching game film that Sunday.
“That's what I expect from you all the time, and he understands that, because of who he is, and he knows how important he is to this football team and how important he is to the defense that he needs to play well each and every week,” Strong said.
Just to make sure that Jefferson continued to receive the message from the coaching staff, it was Cole who once again jogged out with the ones at Jones Stadium.
For Jefferson’s second game as the second-string middle linebacker, he held a new role — the player primary responsible for spying on Texas Tech’s star quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who came into the game with six first-down scrambles on 3rd and long and 30 first-down completions in those situations on 60 attempts, an incredible 50-percent conversion rate.
Jefferson’s efforts helped rattle Mahomes, as the continued benching and well-suited role led to perhaps his best game of the season — at the least, he looked like the Predator again.
No other play showcased Jeffereson’s elite athleticism better than one play spent spying on Mahomes that included a full 25-yard sprint to catch the athletic Red Raiders quarterback:
The Predator @Official_MalikJ runs down Mahomes. #Hookemhttps://t.co/5eauKZz7yK— Hookem Football (@hornsfootball) November 5, 2016
In some of the key moments of the game, Jefferson came up big.
Early in the fourth quarter, Tech opted to go for a 4th and 10 at the Texas 29-yard line down 15 points. In a pure effort play, Jefferson and defensive end Bryce Cottrell tracked down the spinning Red Raiders passer for a 21-yard loss.
With the game in jeopardy, Jefferson responded again — on 3rd and 6 in the middle of the fourth quarter with Texas clinging to the 45-37 lead, Jefferson fought through a hold to sack Mahomes for an 11-yard loss due to intentional grounding. Anther effort play.
By the end of the game, Mahomes had run for negative yardage with a long run of only eight yards. For the most part, Jefferson had him on personal lockdown.
Only TCU had held Mahomes below 6.2 yards per attempt and West Virginia below a passer rating of 126.66, as did Texas.
Mahomes admitted he’d had a rough time.
“Malik (Jefferson) spotted me the entire game,” he said. “He's a great athlete, so they were just trying to make me throw from the pocket, and throughout the entire game I didn't do a good enough job.”
Most of all, Jefferson looked like he wanted to be out there and play every snap with pride.
The overall results?
Eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, and 1.5 sacks, and four quarterback hurries.
“Now you’re looking like the guy you should be looking like,” Strong told his resurgent star on Saturday.
Welcome back, indeed.