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Texas LB Malik Jefferson ready to build on successful freshman season

Now the sophomore wants his on-field production to match the accolades and adoration off of it.

NCAA Football: California at Texas Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

“Everybody loves Malik in Austin,” former Texas cornerback Quandre Diggs told ESPN in early August.

The current Detroit Lions standout never got a chance to play with Malik Jefferson as a Longhorn, but he did make an important recruiting pitch to the sophomore linebacker back in 2014.

“What I told him on his official visit was: You can be the guy around here,” Diggs said. “You can take this thing by storm. Just do what you do. Come here, play football the right way, be a good person, and I guarantee you’ll be king of the city. It’s easy.”

The accolades and adoration from the burnt orange faithful have certainly been there already — unofficial mayor of Austin, preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year — but things weren’t exactly easy for Jefferson as a freshman on the field.

Sure, the 6’3, 238-pounder started against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in his first game and recorded some highlight-reel plays before helping the ‘Horns knock off the Oklahoma Sooners in the Cotton Bowl with two sacks, but the opener was a blowout. So was the trip to Fort Worth. And the trip to Aimes.

Other than the bad losses, things got even more difficult in the middle of October, as Jefferson contracted a mysterious stomach ailment that severely curtailed his production and cost him playing time.

In games against Kansas and Kansas State, he recorded only five tackles combined.

Maybe it was simply the toll that losing took on him, which “made him physically sick at times last season,” according to ESPN.

When the Longhorns upset the Baylor Bears in Waco to end the season, Jefferson was on the sidelines after suffering an ankle injury on Thanksgiving against the Texas Tech Red Raiders in that close loss.

As a linebacker, the state’s top player in the 2015 class struggled at times in transitioning his new role at middle linebacker, which required him to take on and defeat blockers in a way that he never had to before.

After it all ended, Jefferson said that he was too bitter to watch any bowl games. He did, however, watch the Notre Dame game again and again in an attempt to learn from it.

Now he’s looking ahead to the future, unable to control anything in the past and unwilling to dwell in it, even though he finished as the team’s second leading tackler with 61 stops, lead the team with six quarterback pressures, and finished fourth among all ‘Horns with seven tackles for loss.

Heading into a sophomore campaign that features ever-heightened expectations, Jefferson says that he’s now a different player than he was a year ago.

“Wiser,” he said on Tuesday. “I feel like I learned from the older guys and what they've taught me is that I can catch the speed of the game and slow down my base and I think that's what was important for last year.

“I learned how to not take as much pressure on my shoulders and learned that I have a team and that we're all going to do it together.”

While the former might be more important to his play-to-play success on the field, the latter echoes the sentiments of his coaches.

Head coach Charlie Strong simply wants him to continue improving from week to week and has full confidence in his star pupil doing exactly that after getting bigger and faster during the offseason.

Just as importantly, Strong doesn’t want him to try to do everything and be everything.

"Listen, don't feel like that you have to become the face of this program," Strong says to Jefferson.

“Don't feel like the expectations aren't there, but just don't feel like it's all on your shoulders. On defense, there are eleven guys out there. You are only one of eleven. The other guys have to get the job done on offense, on defense and in the kicking game.”

The staff clearly presents a united front in this approach. Just consider the words of linebackers coach Brian Jean-Mary, which sound like a carbon copy of Strong’s.

“I do think sometimes it's unfair to label one guy as the face of a program,” Jefferson’s position coach said in early August. “I think he has all the ability in the world to be a great player and be one of the better players to come through here, but I'm a team guy.

“I always feel like you win as a team, you lose as a team, and if one person is getting the praise when everything is going good, I hate for one person to get the blame when things are not going well. I always harp on the fact that football is a team sport. There are 11 guys on the field every time that ball snaps, so I would always focus on some other great individuals player-wise and character-wise that we have on this team.”

One thing that Jefferson knows is that this is all about winning. His individual success against Notre Dame in his first game as a college player wasn’t enough — team success is all that matters to him.

“I was walking off the field and feeling like nothing was accomplished,” he said. “And I think that's the worst feeling, I know I had a lot of success that game but that didn't mean anything to me. We still lost and that was my focus.”

So when asked about the prestigious preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors, Jefferson was abrupt and emphatic about what it means to him.

“Nothing. Honestly. I didn't think about it last year whenever I got the award and I still don't think about it right now because it’s in the past,” he said.

“And this year hasn't even begun so nobody knows what's going to happen with me and that award is an award and it's a defensive award for my team and if it ever happens then I will congratulate my teammates because I didn't do it myself.”

With the opener against Notre Dame looming only 11 days away, Jefferson knows it’s a huge opportunity for a young team that is still trying to learn how to win consistently.

“It won't make or break us. It's something were just going to have to keep on doing, get used to winning. And that's a big part about this. It's a stepping-stone for us. It's our opportunity.”

For the team, the opportunity is huge. For Jefferson individually, the opportunity is just as great, or perhaps even greater, according to Jean-Mary.

“I think he’s a great kid. I think his best football is ahead of him.”