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Malik Jefferson ready to be face of Texas' future

Linebacker Malik Jefferson is one of five freshmen who will start for Texas this season. John Rivera/Icon Sportswire

AUSTIN, Texas -- When Malik Jefferson took his official visit to Texas in December, his future teammates pitched him on the glory.

If he went to Texas, they vowed, he’d instantly be the new king on campus.

They weren’t lying. But that crown can feel a little heavy. Just ask his parents, who drove down from Mesquite, Texas, for a weekend recently to check in on their freshman linebacker.

They took him to IHOP. Or, at least, they tried to. Considering how many requests for photos and autographs he obliged at the diner, it’s a miracle his omelet didn’t go cold.

With that smile and those dreadlocks, anonymity in public can be rare. Next time, his mother Teresa joked, they’ll try to pick a place a bit further from downtown for their family meal.

Welcome to life as the face of Texas' future. Just 260 days after he became Charlie Strong's biggest recruiting victory yet, Jefferson will make his debut as the Longhorns’ starting middle linebacker against No. 11 Notre Dame. No pressure, right?

"No pressure at all," Jefferson said. "I knew what I was doing the day I committed, the day I signed and the day I came."

In the past decade, only one Texas true freshman (Blake Gideon, 2008) has earned the right to start in a season opener. This season, Strong has already given out starting jobs to five freshmen: Jefferson, receiver John Burt, left tackle Connor Williams, right guard Patrick Vahe and punter Michael Dickson.

The youth movement is on, and Jefferson is leading the charge. That was made clear on Aug. 6 when, for the first time in a long time, Texas' coaching staff let reporters interview a true freshman before he had ever played in a game. They know he can handle the attention.

Good thing Jefferson no longer feels like a freshman. Enrolling early in January gave Jefferson eight months to prepare for this moment. He showed up weighing 217 pounds and is now 240. He quickly earned the respect of his peers, too. Senior nose tackle Desmond Jackson said Jefferson dropped the five-star act before he arrived. He just wanted to be one of the guys.

"We don’t even consider him a freshman," defensive end Naashon Hughes said. "We actually forget sometimes."

That has been Jefferson’s goal since he enrolled. He could think of only one way to start over and effectively move past the hype.

"You be quiet and you show 'em what you’re about," Jefferson said. "That’s exactly what I tried to do and what I still try to do, because there still is a lot of hype going on."

Texas' defensive coaches do a fine job of keeping any ego in check. The fan base went gaga over the five tackles and forced fumble Jefferson recorded in Texas' spring game. The staff saw everything he didn’t do.

They spotted the mental mistakes and the loafing, the times when their rookie wasn’t in the right spot. After they reviewed the film, Jefferson received his grade: 53/100.

"It was just the speed,” Jefferson said. "I wasn’t used to it yet. I knew what I was doing, but it happened so fast and I couldn’t react."

But this is exactly why he enrolled a semester early. Jefferson knew he’d have to endure days like those in April if he hoped to take a starting job in August.

Before fall practice began, Strong made sure to have a conversation with his 18-year-old star about coping with the Texas-sized expectations. His message: Just be yourself.

"You know how some guys put pressure on themselves," Strong said. "I don't want to see that happen to him. He's going to put so much pressure on himself to always make sure he's always going to be right. No, you're not always going to be right. We do make mistakes. Just grow within the system and it will happen for you."

No matter how the linebacker fares on the road against the Irish, he’ll grow up a little more Saturday night. A stage this big might overwhelm most freshmen. Jefferson better get used to it.

"I always say this: When you're at The University of Texas, it's what you sign on for," Strong said. "You sign on to play in big games, and this is a big game for us."