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Texas LB Malik Jefferson ready to take on bigger roles

As a leader and as a playmaker, the unofficial mayor of Austin is ready to fully emerge into the spotlight.

Malik Jefferson (left)
Malik Jefferson (left)
via @CoachBedfordUT

Imagine that you've always been a leader among your peers. Imagine that your peers gravitated towards you because of your charisma. Now imagine trying to balance that natural charisma and leadership ability with being humble and respectful to your elders.

For a cocky, arrogant high school star making the transition to college football, the previous two points could easily outweigh the latter. For the No. 1 prospect in the state of Texas in the 2015 class, Texas Longhorns linebacker Malik Jefferson, those contrasting dynamics resulted in the type of deference as a freshman last season that would make his parents proud.

But it wasn't always easy.

"It was hard, very hard," Jefferson admitted to the media last week. "But I knew that it was in my mind that I had to do it, and honestly it's helping me now."

Now Jefferson looking to build off his freshman All-American performance as he becomes the centerpiece of the Longhorns program and the leader of the burgeoning youth movement for head coach Charlie Strong.

There are senior leaders ready to step forward from last year's junior class, plays like offensive tackle Kent Perkins, tight end Caleb Bluiett, and defensive tackle Paul Boyette, but after watching how Jefferson handled himself on National Signing Day and during those potentially program-changing moments on February 3, it's hard not to think that this is becoming his team.

Just don't expect him to be vocal about that fact with the media.

"I had to be humble," Jefferson said. "I had to stay in my place. I had to sit back and watch and learn from other people's mistakes instead of learning from my own at the same time. I think that was one of the hard parts. I was used to being a leader. Different environments kind of changed who I was. I feel better. I feel stronger."

However, Strong doesn't want him to feel like he has to take on a bigger leadership role alone.

"Just don't feel like that it's all on our shoulders because you have enough guys around you," Strong told his young star. You just lead by example. Lead by the way you work and then everybody else will follow you."

Through that start of spring practice, that's exactly what Jefferson has been doing.

To be sure, despite all the hype and despite the accolades, Jefferson had some growing pains during his freshman season, when he played out of position at middle linebacker and had to learn how to deal with significant traffic inside instead of working off the edge.

With better overall depth and experience at linebacker this season, there may be more flexibility to move Jefferson around in 2016.

"When we go to our odd package, he's a guy that we move around a lot because when you go and talk about winning one-on-one, he's been a guy who's been able to rush from the outside and he can win one-on-one on the outside," Strong said.

Outside of the Oklahoma game, Jefferson only recorded another half sack on the season. But in the Cotton Bowl, when the game plan allowed him to line up at his natural position outside, he was able to record two huge sacks to help secure that monumental victory.

In assessing pure speed off the edge and the ability to run the arc to turn the corner, Jefferson looks much more comfortable in that role than he does in the middle.

So the challenge for Strong and his defensive staff is in figuring out how to allow Jefferson to quarterback the defense from the middle at times, but also incorporate enough of the odd man fronts that allow him to roam and use that quickness to harass opposing offensive linemen. The health of Santos and the development of fellow sophomore Breckyn Hager could be particularly key in that regard.

Given Jefferson's humility, it's telling to hear him talk about watching former Texas A&M pass rusher Von Miller work against the Carolina Panthers in the Super Bowl, getting positively wistful in the process.

"It is what I want to be doing," Jefferson said of Miller's role. "That's what I live to do. That's what I did all throughout high school and it wouldn't be bad pass rushing the quarterback every time."

Considering that he notched two sacks against the Sooners in limited opportunities, to maximize the upside of the entire defense, the Longhorns have to use Jefferson in that role more often. From a technique standpoint, Miller's example certainly shows the value of working to improve quickness and hone subtle moves like the little hesitation he threw on the strip-sack to begin the highlights,

Just don't expect Jefferson to take that opinion to the coaching staff.

"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."

Regardless of where he plays, when assessing the larger trajectory of Jefferson's freshman season, it's also easy to forget that he was hardly at full health for the last half -- he missed the Baylor game entirely and his stats fell off precipitously after he contracted the mysterious stomach ailment that plagued him for weeks. He managed six tackles against Iowa State and 11 against West Virginia, but the three games sandwiched around those contests produced only seven tackles.

And though the program never really discussed what happened with Jefferson, it was clear from watching his play that he wasn't right. Still, those circumstances also provided a learning experience for him.

"It was very frustrating," Jefferson said. "For the last game of the season, it was good to be out there with my brothers and experience that win with them. But things happen. It was tough. I'll bounce back now, look at it as in the past and let it go."

Sage stuff from someone so young. But that's expected for the prospect who represented the tipping point in the Texas vs. Texas A&M head-to-head recruiting battles, lived up to the Tim Tebow comparison from his head coach, and earned the title of unofficial mayor of Austin because of his poise.

Now, using all that humility to ensure that fire still burns strongly, Jefferson is ready to take the next step, as a leader and as an impact player on the field.