Of all the strategic tweaks and personnel moves that Texas football coach Charlie Strong has made to jump-start an inconsistent defense this season, the biggest involved benching his most talented player.
Strong sent linebacker Malik Jefferson, the sophomore selected in July as the Big 12 preseason defensive player of the year, to the bench heading into an Oct. 29 meeting against then-undefeated Baylor. Instead of pouting, Jefferson said he did some soul-searching.
He talked to his parents. He prayed. And he realized he needed to change an approach where he “thought everything would be handed to me” because he is the face of the Longhorns’ defense to most fans and outside observers.
During this week’s news conference in Austin, Jefferson acknowledged a frank discussion with his parents “brought a lot of dark to the light and explained a lot to me. That helped the most. I think I had to realize what I can do … realize the potential I have, actually use it.”
For the Longhorns (5-4, 3-3 Big 12), the move began paying dividends when Jefferson came off the bench to lead the team with 10 tackles and two sacks in a 35-34 victory over Baylor. Back in the lineup, Jefferson added a team-high eight tackles and 1.5 sacks in last week’s 45-37 victory over Texas Tech. Those results give Texas a two-game winning streak heading into Saturday’s game against No. 11 West Virginia (7-1, 4-1) in Austin.
They also underscore that Strong, a longtime defensive coordinator who took over play-calling duties for that side of the ball five games ago, has not lost his touch in regard to his tough-love approach resonating with players. But he acknowledged the move had the potential to backfire.
“A lot of times, when you’re a really good player and someone sits you down … and tells you that you’re not playing at the level you should be playing at, a lot of guys kind of take it personal,” Strong said. “Malik’s a special player. He can take criticism. He’s taken it and ran with it. The last two games, he’s really come on for us.”
That surge raises an interesting situation for the Longhorns. A third consecutive triumph in Saturday’s matchup (11 a.m., FS1) would secure a bowl berth and match Strong’s longest winning streak in his three-year tenure at Texas.
It also would mean a fifth consecutive victory by Strong in matchups against teams ranked No. 12 or higher in the Associated Press poll: wins last season over No. 10 Oklahoma and No. 12 Baylor coupled with this year’s triumphs against No. 10 Notre Dame (Sept. 4), No. 8 Baylor (Oct. 29) and the 11th-ranked Mountaineers.
At some point, Strong may stack together enough victories in high-profile matchups to convince school administrators he deserves to return next season despite a 16-18 overall record. The final three games will be telling but it’s interesting to note that Strong, considered the nation’s most embattled college coach by coacheshotseat.com at midseason, has dropped to No. 22 in this week’s updated list. Earlier this week, Austin American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls raised the possibility of an extension for Strong if he posts an 8-4 record during the regular season.
Such talk, at this juncture, is merely speculation. But it shows how fluid the perception is of Strong’s performance in Austin and underscores how significant a lengthy, Jefferson-fueled winning streak might be in shaping the direction of the program.
Bottom line: In a 10-team league, Texas still ranks eighth among Big 12 schools in scoring defense (33.2 average) and ninth in total defense, allowing 464.1 yards per game. But the remaining schedule has winnowed down to a Nov. 19 road game at Kansas (1-8, 0-6), which has not defeated a league rival since the 2014 season, and home games against West Virginia and TCU (5-4, 3-3). Texas is 4-0 this season in Austin.
Hitting the eight-win mark would be key for Strong’s future at Texas. His defense likely holds the key to making that happen. Jefferson is counting on the unit’s final 37 minutes and 50 seconds of action in Lubbock — when the Longhorns limited the Red Raiders to 14 points while erasing a 23-14 deficit — as a potential season-turner that could morph into a program stabilizer.
“To see everybody keep fighting until the end, to see everybody trust in each other, to see everybody attack the ball whenever it was thrown was so exciting,” Jefferson said of Texas’ closing defensive surge in Lubbock. “That’s what you want on a defense.”
If Jefferson keeps nudging his teammates in that direction, the Longhorns’ defensive improvement in recent weeks could be enough to secure another season for Strong in 2017.