Living up to the outsized expectations that accompanied Malik Jefferson to the Forty Acres was never going to be easy.
But the former Texas Longhorns standout linebacker conducted himself with grace and maturity off the field and showed flashes on the field before turning in an excellent junior season.
Compared to Tim Tebow by former head coach Charlie Strong after he signed, Jefferson helped the Horns close out the 2015 recruiting class with a bang.
As the No. 10 player nationally, the top outside linebacker, and the best player in Texas, Jefferson was expected to make an early impact when he arrived on campus in January of 2015.
It didn’t take much game time before Jefferson put a big hit on a Notre Dame running back, ultimately finishing the game with nine tackles and 2.5 tackles for loss. In starting nine games, Jefferson finished with 61 tackles, seven tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, three passes broken up, one forced fumble, and a fumble recovery that he returned for a touchdown against Rice.
Jefferson’s sophomore season featured more adversity, though his season got off to a strong start against Notre Dame with eight tackles and a sack.
Then, Jefferson admittedly “got too high” on himself after that game. Eventually, head coach Charlie Strong had to bench him for several games.
“Never brought myself down to that phase where you continue to try to get better,” Jefferson said. “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.”
It was an uncharacteristic stretch for a player who had always been willing to work hard, but helped remind him that he needed to work hard to progress.
Jefferson was back to his old self against Texas Tech, recording eight tackles and 1.5 sacks — as a spy on Red Raiders quarterback Pat Mahomes, Jefferson had one of the best games of his career.
An injury sustained against West Virginia limited him for the rest of the season, but that performance against Texas Tech helped a re-focused Jefferson launch himself into a critical junior season that saw him fully live up to the hype for the first time.
Of Jefferson’s 110 tackles, 79 were solo. He added 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, and six quarterback hurries. As a result, he was named the Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year and second-team All-American.
After recovering from a turf toe injury that forced him to miss the Texas Bowl, Jefferson ran a 4.52 40-yard dash and posted a 36-inch vertical leap at the NFL Combine, remarkable numbers for a player who weighs 236 pounds.
From a physical perspective, Jefferson has it all — height, weight, speed, overall athleticism. He’s never had any issues off the field and learned from his experiences as a sophomore. He won’t be a bust and NFL teams will find it hard to pass up his unique physical traits.
However, there are concerns that his production never matched his athleticism and that he lacks the instincts and ability to play inside linebacker in the NFL.
The thing is, there’s a beauty in watching Jefferson range sideline to sideline or find that little bit of extra burst in pursuit. Even if his reactions to a play are a little bit slow, he has recovery speed that is extremely rare in linebackers, especially linebackers at his size.
Areas for improvement at the next level include taking on blocks with better effort and technique, as well as on stunts into the line of scrimmage. Especially early in his career, he was too passive when he was asked to fill a gap while stunting.
At times, he also had issues finishing tackles, with several missed sacks in the Rice game as a freshman and occasional issues for the rest of his career.
Will Jefferson’s production ever match his athleticism at the next level? That’s the question he has to answer moving forward, but because it is a legitimate concern, he’ll likely come off the board in the third or fourth round instead of earlier in the draft.