JEF­FER­SON BACK ON TRACK AF­TER TOUGH TALK

Af­ter off­sea­son meet­ing with Her­man, line­backer knows it’s time to sharpen fo­cus and live up to hype.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Davis bdavis@states­man.com

In his first in­ter­view in more than eight months, Ma­lik Jef­fer­son did not present him­self as the un­ques­tioned leader of the Texas foot­ball pro­gram.

He didn’t say there will be dra­matic im­prove­ment or dras­tic changes. He didn’t de­clare any­thing, re­ally.

Since the end of the 2016 sea­son, Jef­fer­son has spent his days with his head down, mouth closed and eyes and ears wide-open. The new coach­ing staff has de­liv­ered the same mes­sage as the old one. Noth­ing is handed to any­one, not even guys who were the No. 1-ranked re­cruit in the state.

Once con­sid­ered the face of the Texas pro­gram, Jef­fer­son is just try­ing to be a line­backer with a smile on his face once again.

“He’s done ev­ery­thing we’ve

asked him to and more, which is fan­tas­tic,” Texas coach Tom Her­man said. “You can ask him, but he’s do­ing a re­ally good job.”

Jef­fer­son and Her­man sat down in Fe­bru­ary for a se­ri­ous con­ver­sa­tion about the player’s fu­ture. It was re­ported that meet­ing cre­ated a rift between the two, some­thing Her­man pushed back hard against at Big 12 me­dia days. On Wed­nes­day, Jef­fer­son said, “It was good. We had a pretty long con­ver­sa­tion, but I en­joyed every sec­ond of it.”

Jef­fer­son never spoke to re­porters dur­ing the spring and hadn’t given any in­ter­views un­til Wed­nes­day.

“I didn’t mind it at all,” Jef­fer­son said of the meet­ing. “I had a long talk with my fam­ily, and we all dis­cussed it. It’s some­thing that I needed to do to fo­cus on my­self, to look at my­self, be­cause some­times you’ve got to look in the mir­ror to find your mis­takes. Hearing the out­side noise, it’s kind of hard to dis­tin­guish that. But it def­i­nitely helped me.”

Her­man turned heads in April when he went on a Hous­ton ra­dio sta­tion and crit­i­cized Jef­fer­son’s over­all strength. “When we got here Ma­lik Jef­fer­son bench-pressed more than he squat­ted,” Her­man said in the in­ter­view.

In ret­ro­spect, that wasn’t Her­man blast­ing Jef­fer­son; it was the truth, some­thing Her­man doles out reg­u­larly.

Fast-for­ward to Au­gust. The tone is com­pletely dif­fer­ent.

“I sat in the line­backer meet­ing room the other night and made a com­ment just how dif­fer­ent his body looked on video run­ning around out there, his lower body specif­i­cally,” Her­man said Wed­nes­day af­ter prac­tice. “I think he’s proud of that.”

Yes, Jef­fer­son said with a laugh, his lower body has got­ten stronger. And he’s open to what­ever de­fen­sive co­or­di­na­tor Todd Or­lando wants, whether that means com­ing off the edge or pa­trolling the mid­dle.

Last month, Or­lando de­clined to com­ment about his talks with Jef­fer­son. “I’ll keep that between him and me,” Or­lando said.

Said Jef­fer­son, “I have opened my chest and given it to coach Or­lando. He knows what he’s do­ing. I trust him very much, and he trusts me as well. So he’s on me every day mak­ing sure that I stay fun­da­men­tally sound and en­cour­ag­ing me to stay the leader of that de­fense.”

Jef­fer­son started nine games last sea­son but wound up get­ting benched against Kansas State. He didn’t start the next week against Bay­lor, ei­ther. Maybe for­mer coach Char­lie Strong was sim­ply try­ing to get his at­ten­tion. Jef­fer­son fin­ished the Bay­lor game with a team-high 10 tack­les and two sacks.

“I was kind of em­bar­rassed for a lit­tle bit,” Jef­fer­son said last Novem­ber, “be­cause I wasn’t re­ally turn­ing it around.”

Jef­fer­son drifted into a funk. His mother, Teresa, came to Austin from her home in Mesquite, and the two had se­ri­ous heart-to-heart talks. “It doesn’t mat­ter if you’re the face of Coca-Cola, you still have a job to do,” she told him.

Jef­fer­son fin­ished the year third on the team in tack­les (62) and then spent the off­sea­son with Or­lando and strength coach Yancy McKnight.

Her­man made it clear no player would get pref­er­en­tial treat­ment, least of all some­one who isn’t ful­fill­ing his end of the bar­gain.

It’s pos­si­ble this coach­ing staff be­lieves there’s a su­per­star trapped in that No. 46 jer­sey. Her­man, Or­lando, McKnight and the rest of the staff will try their damnedest to find him.

“I think he has fo­cused his en­ergy into be­ing a bet­ter, not just line­backer, a bet­ter team­mate and leader,” Her­man said. “The div­i­dends have been pay­ing off. Ob­vi­ously we won’t know for sure un­til Satur­days in the fall.”

Just ask Jef­fer­son. He knows. He called last sea­son “a trial,” then added “a bump in the road.”

“You’ve got to look back at it and re­al­ize from your mis­takes and move for­ward and fo­cus up and know that you’re bet­ter than that,” Jef­fer­son said. “Mov­ing on to your fu­ture en­deav­ors, you just keep that in your mind that you can keep get­ting bet­ter al­ways. I’ve got to step up and be a leader, and that’s every­where — on and off the field.”

JAY JANNER / AMERICANSTATESMAN 2016

Line­backer Ma­lik Jef­fer­son, once Texas’ top-rated high school player, showed po­ten­tial last sea­son but also strug­gled with in­con­sis­tency in nine starts.

JAY JANNER / AMER­I­CAN-STATES­MAN 2015

Line­backer Ma­lik Jef­fer­son is pre­par­ing for the sea­son with op­ti­mism af­ter strength­en­ing his lower body in off­sea­son work­outs. Coach Tom Her­man said he no­tices the dif­fer­ence.

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