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Predator Rising: Texas LB Malik Jefferson finally fulfilling superstar potential

The state’s former No. 1 prospect is living up to the hype under new defensive coordinator Todd Orlando.

Texas v Iowa State
Malik Jefferson makes a key sack late in the Texas Longhorns 17-7 win over Iowa State Thursday night in Ames
Photo by David Purdy/Getty Images

When Malik Jefferson arrived on campus in early 2015, he was quickly deemed the savior of Texas Longhorns football. Fair or not, when a consensus five-star prospect ranked as the state’s No. 1 player signs with a desperate football program, lofty expectations come with the territory.

To Jefferson’s credit, he’s done his best to embrace his role as catalyst to the Make Texas Great Again campaign. He’s been at the forefront of numerous recruiting battles, has taken all of the interviews, and answered the hard questions. He’s been the leader that Texas needs in all arenas, except, at times, on the football field.

After a superb freshman season, Jefferson suffered from a sophomore slump of sorts, totaling only 59 tackles and often coming up short when Texas was in need of big stops. He was even benched at one point, and took responsibility for his uninspired play.

Upon the arrival Orlando, expectations were renewed when Jefferson was moved to the edge where he is thought to be a natural fit. However, when he and the rest of the Texas defense struggled in the opener against Maryland, questions surrounding whether Malik Jefferson would ever reach his potential at Texas became fair game.

And then the Predator arose.

Highlighted by an 11-tackle performance against USC, Jefferson has exploded and shouldered the load for the Longhorns defense since the disappointing opener. The UT defense allowed a whopping 263 yards on the ground against Maryland. In the three games since, they’ve only given up a stingy 123 yards and no touchdowns. In those three games Jefferson totaled 24 tackles and one sack; nearly half of his entire total tackles in 2016.

The difference? Jefferson is having fun and it is permeating throughout the entire ‘Horns defense.

“Any time you get a chance to get on the field it’s fun,” he said. “That’s the mentality. To be out there with your brothers and giving the ball back for your offense and generate some momentum, that’s what we’re about. We love being on the field. We’re ready to go.”

It can be argued that the loss to USC was the best result for a young Texas team trying to find its way. True or not, It definitely has the defense playing with a chip on their shoulder.

While the college football community will scoff at a 10-point win against a traditional college football bottom-feeder, Thursday’s win against Iowa State proved once again that Texas can stop high-powered offenses. Averaging well over 40 points in their last five games dating back to last season, the Cyclones were no slouch. Texas held ISU to 10 yards rushing and got a clutch stop from Jefferson late in the game, adding confidence to a unit that’s oozing it in the last three weeks.

With the defense riding a bit of a hot streak of late, the question now becomes about consistency with a brutal slate of games upcoming in October. The performance against USC proved that this defense can go toe to toe with any offense in the country (to include OU and OK ST). But as was the case for that game, confidence and a championship mentality are the keys.

Just ask the Longhorns’ arisen leader:

“We are finally understanding that we need to play every game like a championship game...we preached that...and we proved to ourselves how to work hard for each other.”