Malik Jefferson: Holding the Line | Horns Illustrated
Article By Jeff Howe – Horns247.com
AS MUCH AS people credit the men who coached him, the peers who pushed him and the mentors who molded him along the way, the biggest pat on the back for making Malik Jefferson the man he is today goes to his family.
Recruitniks know him as a five-star linebacker prospect. He’s perhaps the most dominant defensive force the state of Texas has produced since Derrick Johnson nearly 15 years ago. Like Johnson, Texas fans hope Jefferson will eventually redefine the way the Longhorns play defense.
A 6’2”, 222-pound physical specimen with special playmaking ability, Jefferson used instincts, elite speed and power to punish the offenses of Mesquite Poteet’s opponents during three varsity seasons. Named an Under Armour All-American, he won the Dick Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top high school linebacker.
The 247Sports Composite rankings — a formula used to rank the top high school football prospects in the country based each individual prospect’s rankings across the various recruiting networks — rated him as the nation’s top outside linebacker prospect and the 10th best recruit in the country for the 2015 recruiting cycle.
Yet to his older brothers — Michael, 26, and Tarik, 21 — Jefferson is still their little brother. And to his parents, he’s still their son.
While being the youngest of three boys has its disadvantages, it also has its perks. The guidance and knowledge he acquired in the process of becoming a young man has molded Jefferson into a potential program-changing player as much as anything else.
MIKE AND TERESA JEFFERSON welcomed their third son into this world on Nov. 15, 1996. For some parents, raising two boys can lead to a case of parental fatigue and lax rules at home, but not in the Jefferson household.
One of the disadvantages to having two older brothers was that his parents already knew all of the tricks their boy might try to pull. Jefferson recalls only one instance where he used a fib to get his way — telling his mother he was going to a friend’s house to hang out even though he knew his friend’s mother wasn’t home — and it backfired.
“My mom knew,” Jefferson recalled. “She caught me. She cussed me out over the phone and told me to never do it again. And I didn’t.”
His parents never had to worry about a lesson slipping through the cracks since they always had backup waiting in the wings thanks to Michael and Tarik. His two brothers ingrained the fact that being born later entitled him to nothing. If he wanted praise or respect, Jefferson had to earn it by doing the right things.
“We’re not going to build you up unless you do something right,” Jefferson remembers his brothers telling him constantly.
Long before he ever touched a weight, studied backfield keys or learned how to function in zone coverage, Jefferson had to learn how to be mentally and physically tough.
It wasn’t always easy growing up with two older brothers, but as Jefferson later found out the perks far outweighed the disadvantages. As he became older, his brothers were able to share their life experiences about how to handle oneself and how to work hard.
The more he saw how right his brothers were in their guidance, Jefferson came to value the one quality that played the biggest role in his recruitment.
Trust remains the reason he gave the Longhorns a shot after Manny Diaz, his initial recruiter, was fired and replaced by Greg Robinson, who couldn’t hold onto the momentum Diaz generated in the recruitment.
Trust drew Jefferson to Charlie Strong and Brian Jean-Mary.
“They built it in me that whatever goes on in our circle stays in our circle,” Jefferson said of how his brothers view trust. “I think that’s big in my future because people are going to try to break me down and not build me back up.”
At the height of his recruitment last fall, when everyone from his peers at school, to other recruits, to members of the media constantly searched for information that might offer the slightest clue as to where the state’s top recruit would play college football, Jefferson stayed grounded.
He remained aware of critics and respectful of his friends who wanted the chance to play with him at the next level, but none of those people consumed his time and forced his recruitment out of control.
The Jefferson Family Circle of Trust made it to where he could deal with everything coming at him from different directions, and it’s how he’s planning on dealing with life on the 40 Acres.
“I’m going to deal with the few people around me,” Jefferson said. “I over-trust people sometimes, but that’s one of the best things [my brothers] told me is to keep things with the people who are closest to me.”
THE TRUTH WAS biggest factor for the Jefferson family during the recruiting process. At the end of the day, trust put Texas over the top.
Several of Jefferson’s friends, including five-star defensive tackle Daylon Mack and five-star quarterback Kyler Murray, signed with Texas A&M. Jefferson liked the Aggies, but the inability of head coach Kevin Sumlin to shed light on who he would hire as his new defensive coordinator left too much uncertainty for him to pull the trigger.
If it wasn’t so far away, UCLA might have been his choice. His good friend Soso Jamabo, a five-star running back out of Plano West, signed with the Bruins, and head coach Jim L. Mora made an impressive pitch during Jefferson’s official visit.
When it came down to the nitty gritty, it all came back to trust. Jefferson felt like Strong, Jean-Mary and the rest of the Texas staff had a better sense of who he was and that, as a result, the Longhorns truly cared about him.
Jefferson said that despite only a handful of face-to-face meetings with Strong, the first-year Texas head coach knew him well enough to know what he was all about.
“I can go anywhere but this is where I felt the most comfortable,” Jefferson said. “I felt like home was where I could trust the most. I can trust Strong because he was real with me.”
JEFFERSON STAYS REAL when you ask him about the time it will take before the Longhorns will contend for a championship again.
It’s a two-year plan, Jefferson says. The Longhorns will play as one of the youngest teams in the country in 2015 and growing pains should be expected.
But Jefferson didn’t choose Texas based on the chance of instant success. It’s a process he’s treating less like a painstaking marathon where he may or may not reach the finish line.
“We’re up there … we’re winning every year,” Jefferson said of where he sees the Longhorns by the time his career ends. “We’re going to show kids this is the new era of Texas football and it’ll be what it was when Texas ran the state.”
Jefferson knows the road ahead is a tough one but Tarik showed him how hard work pays off.
“He was the fat kid in middle school but when he got to high school he worked out so hard,” Jefferson said. “I saw it every second. I took notes on everything he did and what he still does today.”
He watched Tarik’s class take the Poteet Pirates five rounds deep in the playoffs as a senior, the furthest the program has ever been in the playoffs. While striving for greatness in an effort to top that achievement, Jefferson helped Poteet win a district title in 2014 while going four rounds deep in the playoffs both his sophomore and junior years.
Jefferson hopes college mirrors high school in the sense that Jefferson’s time at Texas isn’t about where the Longhorns wind up. It’s about putting in the work to ensure the program remains moving in the right direction.
TERESA JEFFERSON is a leader. She has battled lupus since 2005, which has left Mike to work as much as he can to support the family, leaving Teresa to run the household.
Even with her illness, Jefferson has seen his mother push forward. She took care of Jefferson’s grandfather until he passed away, leaving Jefferson at home to fend for himself for dinner some nights.
By no means does he feel bitter — in fact he feels the exact opposite. He’s thankful his mother showed him what true selflessness means. He credits his mother, who even in less than ideal health, traveled with him to his official visits during the recruiting process, as the biggest reason he’s the person he’s become.
That’s the mentality Jefferson took with him to Austin when he left home in January. Nothing he did before he arrived at Texas — the recruiting rankings, the awards, the hype — matters now. He’s now, as he puts it, just another freshman ball player who has to earn his way onto the field.
“People mess up and try to grant their power based on who they are in high school or what they’ve done in their past,” Jefferson said. “That all goes away and you can’t sit on that anymore. The best approach is to go in humble.”
One of the reasons Jefferson picked Texas was so he could set a trend, so others would follow him to Texas to help make the program better.
That doesn’t mean Jefferson wants to be labeled as the savior of the Longhorns.
“That’s for your ego and that doesn’t boost me,” he said. “You have to go do what you have to do. People can say you did this and that, but just like at Poteet, I had help. I can’t get all of the credit because I didn’t do all of that by myself.”
THE WEIGHT OF what rests on Jefferson’s shoulders would be enough to crack King Kong’s back. His family has done their best to prepare him for this moment — the time when their collective work is done and he has to go out and truly be his own man.
But what if he’s not the next Derrick Johnson? What if he’s not even the next Jordan Hicks? What if Texas doesn’t win?
Those are all legitimate questions, none of which will be answered in the foreseeable future. The top can be a lonely place, but Jefferson sees himself starting from the bottom. He’s just an unproven freshman who won’t be handed anything.
His family has shown him how humility, trust and hard work can get a man far in life. That’s why, when asked what he fears about the future, Jefferson’s answer isn’t surprising.
“Everybody fears getting hurt, or not living up to what they can do, but I can’t fear anything,” he said. “If that happens then it was God’s plan and I’ll move on with life and I’ll be grateful for the opportunity that I had.”
- Chosen as the 2014 High School Butkus Award winner as the nation’s top high school linebacker.
- Picked Texas Defensive Player of the Year and to the All-USA Texas Team by USA Today.
- Placed No. 1 on the Fab 55 by the Austin American- Statesman.
- Despite missing more than two games due to injury, along with three other second halves, still recorded 81 tackles, including six sacks and 16 tackles for loss, along with two forced fumbles and four blocked kicks as a senior.
COACH STRONG SAYS: “Anytime you’re in a recruiting process, there’s going to be a marquee player — that was Malik Jefferson for us. When he got on board, it got us started. He was able to sell the program. There were recruits that were sitting on the fence, and then when they saw Malik jump on board, they jumped on board too. For the ones that weren’t trying to make a decision on where they wanted to go, he was able to sell the program. They were able to call him because so many players respected him and knew exactly who he was.”
Jeff Howe Analysis - THERE'S REALLY NOT much more I can say about Malik Jefferson that I haven’t already mentioned. I did an evaluation of Jefferson as a player when he committed back on Dec. 19, but what’s worthy for this piece is what I took from my final interview with him last month.
A few days before he enrolled at Texas, Jefferson and I had a lengthy interview for this cover story. One of the questions I posed to him was to talk about his biggest fear, a question he answered with a tremendous amount of conviction. “I don’t fear anything,” he said. “I have a lot of faith in what’s going to happen in my future and if it doesn’t work out the way people projected it I don’t care. I’m going to be successful regardless of what happens on and off the field.”
Jefferson also answered another question in an extremely serious manner when I asked him where the program will be by the time he’s done at Texas. He told me it’ll be two years before the Longhorns really turn the corner, but it’ll be worth the wait once the current regime finds the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Oh, we’re up there, we’re winning every year,” he said. “I don’t see it going down, honestly. It’s going to keep going up. We’re going to show kids this is the new era of Texas football and it’ll be what it was in the past when Texas ran the state and Texas was the only school everybody watched. They watch A&M, but Texas was Texas. UT meant a lot to everybody and UT was everywhere.”