Malik Jefferson is not the face of Texas football, and he's OK with that

Matich: Texas not a good matchup for Oklahoma (2:28)

Trevor Matich says that even though Oklahoma is favored, Texas has big receivers that will threaten Oklahoma's defense. (2:28)

AUSTIN, Texas -- "There's moments in life where you go left or right. Define your future now only you control it. #hookemhorns"

Those words, typed out by the thumbs of Texas linebacker Malik Jefferson, were posted on July 30, the day before the Longhorns opened training camp for the 2017 season. They were the last words Jefferson sent out into the Twitterverse before removing the Twitter and Instagram apps from his phone.

It was a deliberate decision, one he felt he had to make. He wanted to be a better linebacker, a better teammate and a better leader.

To do that, he decided he needed to eliminate the noise.

"It's been very quiet and I actually appreciate that peace," Jefferson said Wednesday with a smile. "I need to focus on my teammates and what's going on around here."

As the Longhorns (3-2) prepare to meet rival Oklahoma (4-1) on Saturday in the Red River Showdown (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN App), they do so with an improving defense and a rejuvenated star at linebacker in Jefferson.

From the time Jefferson committed, he was anointed.

Like many a blue-chip recruit, Jefferson was the focal point of much attention, but he was even more so because he was caught in a recruiting tug-of-war between two Lone Star State rivals: Texas and Texas A&M. At the time of his pledge to the Longhorns, in December 2014, it was a landmark recruiting victory for then-head coach Charlie Strong.

"He was the No. 1 linebacker [in the state] at the time so it's always big when you get a player like that," Strong said.

There was no doubting his immense talent. Jefferson was ranked as the 31st-best player in the nation. He won the high school version of the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation's top linebacker. He was an Under Armour All-American. He was the face of Charlie Strong's recruiting class.

Furthermore, he's affable and charismatic. His peers naturally gravitate to him. After a year at Texas, one of the Longhorns' former assistant coaches dubbed him "the unofficial mayor of Austin."

As a true freshman, he met the expectations placed on him. He started immediately and became a freshman All-American. The word "leader" was thrown around in describing him. He embraced it. "I've earned my stripes," Jefferson said in the spring of 2016.

He was fast becoming the face of Texas football.

His sophomore season didn't go as planned. The defense struggled and then-defensive coordinator Vance Bedford was demoted four games into the season. Jefferson's play wasn't up to snuff, either.

All those positive qualities that made him the center of attention began to work against him. The constant positive praise coming off his freshman year from the outside world, via social media, affected him and, eventually, his play on the field. When things didn't go well on the field, the negative comments ate at him, too.

"Just hearing something every week about how good you are or reading everything you see on Twitter or Instagram, as soon as you're doing good or you're doing bad, it just really shows," Jefferson said. "It got the best of me, honestly. It put me in a hole where I shouldn't have been."

He was supposed to be a leader, but the pressure -- as losses mounted and Strong's future looked more and more bleak -- became challenging for the then-19-year-old sophomore to handle. He recalled a player-led team meeting around this time a year ago and teammates looking to him for answers he didn't have.

"At that moment, I realized there was a lot of pressure on me and guys were looking at me to do everything," Jefferson said. "It's one of those things that we had to fix as a team, and we did."

His 2016 hit a low point last October, when he was removed from the starting lineup following the Longhorns' loss to Kansas State. He started the next game, against Baylor, on the sideline.

In the days leading up to the Baylor game, his mother, Teresa, drove down from Mesquite to Austin to spend time with Malik and help him refocus. It paid off and his play began to improve.

"It completely turned around my whole mental aspect," Malik said. "I felt like I was myself again and it was important that she was around."

But soon, Jefferson would have to prove himself all over again to a new set of coaches.

From the time new Texas coach Tom Herman and Jefferson met in February all the way to August, Jefferson didn't say a word publicly.

Once the face of the program, Jefferson was silent -- and that was on purpose. He didn't do a single interview with reporters during spring practice and he wasn't one of the players Herman brought along to Big 12 media days in July, which raised eyebrows and led to speculation of a rift.

Both have said there wasn't one and the silence, Herman said, was the result of a lengthy conversation the pair had before spring practice.

"He said, 'To be honest with you, a lot of the spotlight stuff is a distraction for me,'" Herman said in July. "So I made a concerted effort to make sure that Malik Jefferson was not thrust into the spotlight, that he could focus on being a better linebacker and a better leader and a better teammate and he's done everything we've asked him to do on that front. If you notice, we made players available after almost every spring practice and he wasn't one of them. That was by design. That wasn't because he was playing bad or we didn't like him or that there was a 'disconnect.' That was simply because that's what him and I decided might be the best for his growth."

Herman said he sensed that when the two spoke, Jefferson wasn't enjoying football and lacking confidence.

"I don't think he was having fun," Herman said. "I think he put a lot of pressure on himself."

He's right. Jefferson said of his sophomore season: "I did feel pressure. … My freshman year, I just went out there and had fun. Last year, I played so tense and I played so slow."

"Just hearing something every week about how good you are or reading everything you see on Twitter or Instagram, as soon as you're doing good or you're doing bad, it just really shows. It got the best of me, honestly."
Malik Jefferson

From the time Herman and defensive coordinator Todd Orlando arrived, however, Jefferson has been an open book. There were some "bad habits" Herman said needed to be corrected in his play and his body needed work, but Jefferson was ready and willing to do whatever they wanted.

This offseason, Orlando focused on technique and Jefferson's physicality.

"Apparently I wasn't physical, I didn't do things that basically a linebacker does," Jefferson said. "I'm fast and I run around and stuff like that but I didn't do the physical part of what a linebacker does. That's one of the things they focused on throughout the whole spring and fall camp with me."

Strength coach Yancy McKnight developed a plan to strengthen Jefferson's lower body, which has happened. Orlando placed Jefferson in the rover linebacker spot, basically a weakside linebacker, where he can primarily focus on making plays. That wasn't always the case when he was playing middle linebacker last season.

The results have been evident. He leads the team with 43 tackles, has a team-high five tackles for loss, three quarterback hurries and 1.5 sacks. Orlando has seen Jefferson embrace the type of physical play the Longhorns' desire, and as a result, it has helped him become a leader by example.

"I think he carries himself a different way," Orlando said. "I think beforehand, if he got banged up a little bit, he'd dip his head down and make sure everybody knew he was hurting. I think there's less of that. It's where he's taking pride in the physicality part."

He's still a vocal leader -- that part still comes naturally -- but when he's playing the way he is now, the words mean more.

"I think his teammates look at him and, when he says something -- because he's a very, very intelligent guy and a lot of the stuff he says is really, really good stuff in terms of leadership -- but the first part you have to do is by action," Orlando said. "'I'm going to follow you, Malik, when I see you be physical and I see you going reckless to the football.' That will speak more than his words and I think that's what he's starting to do."

Says Jefferson of playing in Orlando's defense: "I love it. I love this system. I learn something new every week, every day almost. In the back of my head, I know where my help is, every second."

Jefferson might not be the "face of the program" like he once was, and judging by how his season is going and how frequently he smiles these days when walking around Moncrief-Neuhaus Athletic Center, that's OK by him. Herman, ever the extrovert, is that guy and will be for the forseeable future. Jefferson is letting his play speak for itself.

He hasn't completely sworn off social media; Jefferson says he still gets on Facebook to watch videos and entertain himself, but Twitter and Instagram will stay off his phone until the season ends. "It's going to be weird transitioning back," he admits, but he knows it's better this way.

"I realized that I had to sacrifice to have the time to focus on football and myself and take care of myself," he said. "That wasn't something I was doing last year."

His schedule now consists of football, class, eating and sleeping, with some occasional Netflix mixed in. There's still plenty of attention on him, but he doesn't see it unless it comes across the TV screen in one of the small handful of moments he's not watching "Narcos," his current personal favorite show.

In addition to his mother and father, he credits teammates Charles Omenihu and DeShon Elliott -- also fellow Class of 2015 recruits -- for helping him navigate the peaks and valleys of his time as a Longhorn. Asked about Jefferson's play, Herman knocks on the wooden table at the center of his office for good luck and says, "He's playing at a very high level right now."

As Jefferson enters his third Red River Showdown, he's pondering what will be the ideal gift for his mother, whose birthday is Saturday. Regardless of what he decides, one thing is certain: His mind is clear and he's focused, thanks to his choice to ignore the noise.

"I had highs and lows," Jefferson said, reflecting on how social media affected him. "There were some days where I could see that it was going good [on social media] or look back and it was going bad and, of course, it puts you in a different mood."

Before he logged off in the preseason, he made sure to remember some of the things he read, for motivation this season.

"I saw it and that's the last part I wanted to see about it, because I wanted to make my own reality," he said.