31 days to make a decision

Malik Jefferson, No. 35 in the ESPN 300, will announce his decision Dec. 19. Max Olson/ESPN

MESQUITE, Texas - Want a clue? Malik Jefferson isn't offering many these days.

He's stopped taking calls from recruiters and reporters alike. He's trying to stay away from Twitter. The coveted four-star pass-rusher, No. 35 in the ESPN 300, needs seclusion because, in truth, he's still searching for his answer.

Jefferson only offers one hint. "It comes down to one word: trust."

The No. 1 linebacker in Texas will reveal what that means Friday at his 7:45 a.m. commitment ceremony. Then he goes off to his final day of high school at Mesquite Poteet. In a few weeks he's on his own, a college freshman eyeing a starting job.

Jefferson's two-year process has been a classic Texas vs. Texas A&M showdown, and it's now the first program-changing prize fight between Charlie Strong and Kevin Sumlin. In College Station, Jefferson would be the next big puzzle piece on a defense that desperately needs playmakers. In Austin, the always-smiling linebacker can be the face of the program.

The only twist -- UCLA has swiftly snuck into this race as a faraway wild card with a serious chance of pulling a stunner. His family wants him close to home. His best friend, DeAndre McNeal, wants to keep playing with him. And everybody else just wants to know. There's no longer a wrong choice or an easy choice. And there's no time left.

"It's over. I mean, really, it's over," Jefferson said with a sigh last month. "I'm not ready to be grown. But I am. I am."

These are the last days of Jefferson's high school life, the final month before one life-changing decision.

Nov. 18: 31 DAYS LEFT

Malik Jefferson sits in his coach's office wearing a silver LSU hoodie after practice, but Texas A&M is on his mind. Two days after his official visit to College Station for his birthday weekend, it's clear Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin has done a number on him.

Jefferson believes he's the one missing piece at Texas A&M. He believes elite players will follow him to College Station. He doubts they'd go to UT. He says the SEC factor doesn't matter, but fears Texas "doesn't have my scheme." Most important, Sumlin has him sold on the future.

"I may not like Texas A&M because they suck right now. I may not like Texas because they suck. But both have so much potential," Jefferson said. "That's what I'm looking at now. To be honest, A&M has twice as much potential."

He says this after witnessing Missouri gash A&M's injury-depleted defense for 335 rushing yards in a rain-soaked 34-27 win. Jefferson was infuriated. He thought Aggies players looked lazy, almost complacent.

"My class, the class that's going to A&M, they're going to have a lot of heart," Jefferson said. "They're going to change that."

Jefferson can tell his entire family is gently pushing him to go to Texas. His parents try to be subtle, though they've never concealed their preference.

The steady encouragement is starting to have an adverse effect. Their nudges make him want to go to Texas less, not more.

"I don't necessarily think my parents are going to be happy where I go," he says. "Right now, I feel like I have a clue."

He has one month of recruiting left before he can sign a letter of intent, but he's starting to see the finish line.

I'm ready to get there. I really am. Get it all over with," Jefferson said before glancing at the lime green iPhone in his hand. "I could just blow it up right now if I wanted to."

Nov. 22: 27 DAYS LEFT

The realization it was over set in when the Poteet fight song blared one final time.

Jefferson's high school playing days were done. His senior season ended in playoff heartbreak, a 27-24 loss to The Colony in the Cotton Bowl.

Days later, he still can't get over how it all ended: a trick play. Two yards from the game-winning score, Poteet coaches called for a halfback pass with 17 seconds left. The back took the toss and was supposed to throw to a wide-open DeAndre McNeal.

His pass got tipped. Interception. Ballgame.

"I was so mad that I didn't know how to feel," said Jefferson, who watched the play from the sidelines.

Weeks later, Poteet coach Kody Groves shakes his head in his office as he recounts the season ended. He believes this Pirates team could've gone the rest of the way to state.

"We scored a touchdown on that play earlier in the year," Groves said. "It's one of those gut feelings a coach calls sometimes. If it works, you're a hero. Sometimes they don't."

By the time he was in the locker room, Jefferson was crying.

With the season over, Malik can avoid it no longer. Time to get serious again about his recruitment.

Nov. 24: 25 DAYS LEFT

Jefferson announces his top seven choices on his Twitter account.

They're listed in no particular order, but at this phase it's becoming clear the Bears, Sooners and Horned Frogs have fallen behind the other four. He has been to all three schools plenty, and even attended TCU's 82-27 win over Texas Tech along with five-star A&M commit Daylon Mack. Baylor was once one of the major contenders, and his first few visits to Waco were game-changers for his thought process.

"Everybody forgets about me and Baylor," Jefferson said, "but to be honest, Baylor is not a defensive school."

Two weeks later, McNeal will put out his own top five: UCLA, Texas, Texas A&M, Alabama and Texas Tech. In all, he ended up taking eight visits this year, most of them without Jefferson by his side. Best friends since seventh grade, they used to tell coaches they were going to college together. They strayed from that sentiment this fall.

DeAndre will do what's best for DeAndre. Malik will look out for Malik.

"If it happens to come together in the same place, then we're gonna finesse at it," said McNeal, a four-star athlete.

But three schools are still going hard after both. Their interests are starting to align again.

Nov. 28: 21 DAYS LEFT

Sumlin called immediately after the news broke. A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has been fired, a move even Jefferson expected.

He had a hunch during his official visit. When he sat in a room with the full A&M staff, Sumlin did all the talking. His interactions with Snyder were brief. The head coach took control of the visit.

"I felt the tension in the room," Jefferson said. "I had a feeling something was going to happen. There was a change coming, I could tell."

Sumlin vowed he would keep his top target informed throughout the search process. Big names get thrown around publicly for the job. Only one gets him excited.

"If they get Muschamp, that would be awesome," he says. "That would be amazing."

The timing isn't ideal for A&M's pursuit. Sumlin has 17 days to find a DC and get him in a room with Jefferson before the NCAA's recruiting dead period begins and face-to-face contact becomes prohibited. Scheme and fit are a big deal in Jefferson's decision. He has lots of questions for the new guy.

No head coach has a better bond with Jefferson than Sumlin. But two years into their relationship, this is no time for instability and uncertainty.

"I can't rule A&M out. I have to see who's next," Jefferson said. "I have to sit back and wait, honestly. I didn't rule out Texas when they had their change, so I'm not going to do the same thing for A&M."

Nov. 30: 19 DAYS LEFT

There are days when this recruiting process, glamorous as it looks, truly frustrates Jefferson. This is one of them. He wants to vent about his frustration with official visits.

Why can't the NCAA let programs pay for his parents' travel costs? These schools and their coaches make millions yet expect parents to foot the bill for their own plane tickets.

"It's too much work and money. It's not realistic," Jefferson said. "I don't get why the NCAA won't help us out. I've been limited by the things I can see. With the limited money we have, we couldn't afford for my family to see these schools."

He wanted to take five out-of-state official visits. He wanted his father, mother and brothers to come along and offer their wisdom. None of that is feasible. The financial burden is too great.

His mother, Teresa, has been battling lupus since 2005. She has good days and bad, but the chronic autoimmune disease has made working in the past few years impossible.

Malik knows money gets tight sometimes. He feels guilty, sensing any trip to a school he won't sign with costs money his family can't waste. But the 18-year-old can't take these trips by himself, either. He needs his family's input.

"You shouldn't be sending kids on their own to make life decisions," he said. "Makes no sense."

Jefferson wanted to see Ole Miss. He won't. He goes back and forth on whether his official visit to UCLA is worth taking.

"It's so late in the game -- so late -- that I'd be surprised if UCLA surprised me."

Dec. 6: 13 DAYS LEFT

Jefferson gives Texas one final visit. The Longhorns roll out the red carpet for Jefferson and his father, Michael Sr. -- Malik's mother isn't feeling well and stays home -- during their official visit for graduation weekend.

Jefferson has been to Austin countless times during this two-year process, and the experience for this final trip was as good as ever. In the final days of his recruitment, Jefferson says this was his second-favorite official visit, slightly better than his time in College Station.

Jefferson hung around Ryan Newsome, the electric receiver/returner from Aledo, and another ESPN 300 linebacker, Darrin Kirkland Jr., who went on to commit to Tennessee. It was the time Jefferson spent with three Texas players -- Quandre Diggs, Jordan Hicks and Demarco Cobbs -- that made a real impression.

"Quandre was real with me," Jefferson said. "He said something not many people would say: 'Texas really doesn't need you, from a defensive standpoint. But at the same time, they do.' He told me I'd be the king at Texas and I'd run the show. I was amazed by that."

The message from Strong, whose sugar-free honesty has always impressed Jefferson, was no different: Texas needs him. He's exactly the kind of kid -- an elite defender with impeccable character -- Strong covets as he rebuilds the Longhorns in his likeness.

Jefferson tours the Longhorn Network studio, dines in The Tower and at Vince Young Steakhouse, takes in a practice as the Longhorns prepare for their bowl game, and then goes home exhausted. Strangely, he takes no photos and posts no tweets during his time in Austin.

He insists that's because he was having too much fun. Most assume it's because Texas didn't impress him enough.

"Why do people keep thinking it was bad? I had a great time!" Jefferson said. "I really enjoyed myself."

Still, the visit doesn't dramatically change his views or his process. Texas makes it a tougher call but doesn't take the lead.


The final days of pitching are here. Over the course of 11 days, coaches from LSU, Baylor, UCLA, Texas A&M and Texas descend upon Mesquite for in-home visits.

The first one did not go so swimmingly. Teresa told Les Miles to his face the brutal truth: She had a terrible time on Malik's official visit to Baton Rouge.

She never saw the campus. Never saw a dorm room. Didn't learn much. She paid more than $800 and sure wishes she hadn't. "Worst place ever," in her honest opinion. The family connected with defensive coordinator John Chavis, but that wasn't enough. LSU is out.

Jefferson's mom and dad liked everything about Baylor. Beautiful small-town community, smaller classrooms, personable coaches, dynamic nutritional program, 90 minutes from home. They never took a bad visit to Waco, but Malik had already ruled out the Bears.

UCLA brought its "A" game to Mesquite. Coach Jim Mora brought every one of his defensive coaches -- five in all -- with him. They convinced McNeal to show up and join the fun, too. By the time they left, all involved were fired up about reuniting for the upcoming official visit.

"They came in like they were part of the family, six deep and all over the house," Michael Sr. said. "That was great. I was real comfortable with that."

Kevin Sumlin's visit went well, too, but he did not bring a defensive coordinator with him as Malik had hoped. Linebackers coach and interim DC Mark Hagen joined Sumlin, and together they did their best to assuage the family's concerns about the vacancy.

Teresa and Michael Sr. do like A&M, but still have reservations. Jefferson's mom doesn't trust the apartment living and confesses she hasn't connected with Sumlin like she does with other coaches. His dad is still skeptical it's a better option than UT.

Strong and defensive coordinator Vance Bedford got the last visit on Dec. 11, right before Malik and Teresa took off for UCLA with McNeal, and ensured they'll remain the parent's preferred choice.

Teresa has been wowed by the way Strong cleaned house by dismissing nine players, installing core values and moving freshmen back into the dorms. The values Strong preaches are the same demanded in the Jefferson household. And his promise of a business degree in three years -- Malik wants to be an entrepreneur after football -- is precisely what his parents care about.

Armed with all the information those in-home visits provided, Malik's parents remain adamant they don't want to influence his decision. They'll give their opinion on occasion, but the decision is still his and his alone.

"I've been praying about it and crying about it and worrying about it," Teresa says, "but we really hope he's mature enough to make the correct decision." Michael Sr., sitting next to his wife on the same couch that hosted so many coaches, has to interject.

"I think any decision is going to be correct," he said. "It may not be correct for us, but it must be for him."


Until last Friday, Malik had never set foot in California. Had never seen the Pacific. The only UCLA game he'd ever attended -- a 20-17 comeback win over Texas in September -- was played in Dallas.

He expected a fun weekend in Los Angeles with his mother and McNeal along for the trip. He didn't expect what he got: An experience that made Jefferson rethink everything.

"It was incredible. Mind-blowing," he said. "It was a surprise to all of us. I didn't think I'd come home and really think about or consider UCLA."

The Bruins played this perfectly. He'd been making those drives to College Station and Austin for years. UCLA offered something new, something different and thrilling. Offering it up in the final week of his decision-making process was a masterful move.

Jefferson came home raving about Mora and his staff full of ex-pro coaches. The players, led by Mesquite native Eldridge Massington, embraced him and McNeal right away. The practices were fast, intense, crisp. Westwood and the beach were hard to beat.

So was meeting Eric Kendricks, a player Jefferson has looked up to throughout the season. Both Kendricks and Jefferson won the Butkus Award this month as the nation's best linebackers.

Mora, meanwhile, worked on Mrs. Jefferson. One night, before taking her out for a steak dinner, the head coach drove Teresa into Beverly Hills and Bel Air to show off the sights. They stopped inside Prada. Out of curiosity, Mora asked to see the most expensive purse in the store. A sales clerk produced an alligator-print bag. Price tag: $23,000.

Between that excursion and a chance meeting with actress Kerry Washington while touring campus, Malik's mother came home with stories she'll be telling for years. If UCLA were located 200 miles away, this might already be a done deal.

"I like UCLA," she says, "but it's too far."

Her son can see himself there, that much is certain. He fit in. He senses Mora is building something special. He was sold, so much so that Texas A&M is no longer the frontrunner.

"UCLA is in the safe spot for me," Jefferson said Tuesday. "The other two, A&M and Texas, they're on the bubble."


The big talk is looming.

Teresa and Michael Sr. think their son knows what he wants to do. Maybe, deep down, he already does. At the start of the week, they all agreed to have the final family discussion Wednesday and reach a decision.

By Tuesday, Malik wanted to push that plan back another day. He's not as ready as he'd hoped.

What does he do? Does he pick the school that's 1,200 miles away? Does he pick the one with no defensive coordinator? Does he settle for his parents' preference?

He's waiting on an answer from Sumlin. A clue. Anything. As of Wednesday evening, he and Sumlin hadn't spoken all week. Jefferson won't get to meet his defensive coordinator in person. He won't know if he'll like the coach's style or schemes.

"I've got to do my research on who the guy is, what kind of defense he runs," Jefferson said. "Coach Sumlin needs to trust me enough to tell me, even if he can't say it on the record. He has to tell me something."

As pleased as he was to learn elite receiver Christian Kirk picked the Aggies on Wednesday, Jefferson says he's also warned five-star quarterback Kyler Murray, the Aggies' top 2015 commit, that the DC vacancy could be a dealbreaker.

Same goes for the distance factor. His mother's health is still on his mind. UCLA coaches say he can come home whenever he needs to, though he's not sure he can take their word on that. Teresa doesn't buy it. The side effects have been rough lately - she's still searching for the right medication - and Malik fears the worst. What if she gets sick and he's too far away?

He wonders, too, whether the post-visit high will wear off. Of the final three, Jefferson still knows the least about UCLA. Is it possible he's putting too much stock into one great trip?

"That's exactly what I'm scared of," he said. "It's like a gamble if I choose UCLA. Big-time gamble."

And then there's Texas, an easy choice in many ways but one he seems less enthusiastic about. His beliefs about the superiority of A&M's future haven't changed. And if Mom and Dad push, he'll push back. UT is the compromise choice, the one he really likes but might not love.

McNeal would love to know who's going to win. Groves is hoping for an early hint. The recruiters, future teammates, friends and followers, they're all anxiously awaiting. Malik would love to know, too.

"It's overwhelming now," he said. "If I don't feel it in my gut, if I'm not waking up Friday morning smiling and knowing where I'm going, it's going to be ugly. But there's no turning back."

Jefferson has two finals to take care of before he can graduate from Poteet. Econ and speech. He picked his own topic for his last oration: "Why to go to college."

It's infinitely easier than the one he's delivering Friday morning. He just needs to figure out the ending.