As we’re now beginning to learn in the case of Texas Longhorns star linebacker Malik Jefferson, it’s not easy to follow up a freshman All-American campaign.
After serving as the brightest spot on a young Texas defense and leading the team in tackles with 61 during his first season on campus there’s been scattered murmurs across social media and such that the sophomore hasn’t taken the significant step forward many may have predicted after he was named the preseason Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year.
You won’t hear such sentiments from Longhorns defensive coordinator Vance Bedford, whom defended his defensive centerpiece at length during his Wednesday media availability.
“Based on each game, we have pressured him some, inside, outside,” Bedford said. “He’s grown like a lot of the guys have. People forget that he’s only a sophomore. Sometimes, people think he’s been here four years, he’s Derrick Johnson, all those guys.
“Malik is a sophomore. He has 12 games last year. He’s had 15 games, and they want him to be Superman. Malik is one of the most instinctive players I’ve been around. He has great awareness. Now, he’s continued to progress in direction we need him to go in to be a leader on this football team, and to be a playmaker in this defense.”
If you look at it from a statistical standpoint, then no, Jefferson hasn’t been effective as expected through three games, as his freshman numbers surpass his current 2016 totals.
Last season, Jefferson racked up 27 tackles in the first three games, as opposed to only 19 total tackles as the same mark this season, a total good for second on the team behind sophomore linebacker Anthony Wheeler.
Various factors play into this statistical step back.
After what Jefferson displayed as a freshmen, he’s become a focus for offensive coordinators to game plan around. Coaching staffs now make sure they account for where Jefferson is going to be on the field and adjust their protection and play calling accordingly, as noted by Charlie Strong following the loss to Cal.
“So the thing about him is that we can move him around a lot because he's so talented where he can rush the passer, he can drop into coverage, but he's effective wherever we put him,” Strong said.
“But the thing about it, when you have a really good player like that, people are going to find out where he is. So now all of a sudden wherever he's rushing from, he, because of who he is, people kind of turned their protection that way.”
Additionally, thanks to Sterlin Gilbert injecting life into the Longhorns offense, the time of possession has jumped to 85:05 through three games, a substantial improvement over 2015’s 67:20 total at the same juncture.
This means the Texas defense, led by Jefferson, has been on the sidelines nearly 20 more minutes than it had been through three games last season, which, as one can expect, will impact virtually anyone’s statistical presence.
While the tackle for loss and sack numbers haven’t yet reached the heights many may have thought they would for Jefferson, it’s worth considering that he’s quite likely having an even bigger impact on the defense than he did in 2015.
Simply because of who he is, teammates like Wheeler, Breckyn Hager and Malcolm Roach play with the advantage of one-on-one match ups in most situations because the focus is on preventing Jefferson from wreaking havoc. Even on the plays that he doesn’t make the tackle, he affects the outcome.
Isn’t making everyone around them better what great players are supposed to do?