AUSTIN, Texas (AP) — Malik Jefferson had lost his mojo and so had the Texas Longhorns.
The sophomore middle linebacker who was handed the role of team leader the moment he stepped on campus as a freshman was not playing well and the Longhorns were losing. Then Jefferson got benched.
He responded with two of the best games of his career as Texas (5-4, 3-3 big 12) beat Baylor and Texas Tech, and the resurgent Longhorns have pumped life into what looked like a dead season for embattled coach Charlie Strong. Next up is a home game Saturday against No. 11 West Virginia (7-1, 4-1), which still has eyes on a possible Big 12 title.
“I just mentally figured out that I'm a leader. It's time for a leader to step up and be on every play,” Jefferson said.
Jefferson has always been a public face of the team, arguably the biggest recruit Strong has signed. Even as a freshman, he had a mature voice in interviews and has been willing to tackle issues outside of football, notably publicly speaking out against a new Texas law that allows concealed handguns on campus.
On the field, he was the Big 12 defensive freshman of the year in 2015. But something was different in 2016. There were missed tackles, broken assignments and a lack of big plays. He got benched in a dismal loss to Kansas State and was embarrassed. Then came a meeting with Strong.
“We did sit down for a while and talk,” Jefferson said. “(He) just wanted to make sure everything was OK with me personally. I was fine. I think I had to realize what I can do, how much control I can take over in the game. Realize the potential I have and actually use it.”
He responded with nine tackles and a key late sack against Baylor. The came eight tackles and another sack against Texas Tech. As Jefferson goes, so does the Texas defense, and Strong has seen his team leader take charge again.
“Now you're looking like the guy you should be looking like,” Strong told him.
Some things to watch for when the Mountaineers and Longhorns meet Saturday:
Texas running back D'Onta Foreman has emerged as the nation's most dominant running back, averaging 180.8 yards per game with a combination of power and speed in his 250-pound frame. He ran for a 74-yard touchdown last week against Texas Tech with only one shoe : the other came off near the line of scrimmage.
“I just had to finish the run,” he said. “I couldn't worry about the shoe.”
BIG PLAY RECEIVER
Texas has a tendency to surrender career games to opposing wide receivers. West Virginia's Daikiel Shorts Jr., could be the next one. He ranks fourth in the Big 12 in receiving yards per game at 84.4 and Mountaineers quarterback Skyler Howard may try to dial up that connection early.
ROAD TO THE BIG 12
The Mountaineers need to win if they want to stay in the hunt for the program's first Big 12 title and have had mixed results on the road. A big win at Texas Tech put them among the conference favorites until a road loss at Oklahoma State. The Mountaineers average more points on the road (34.3) than at home (32.6).
Despite major struggles on defense, the Longhorns get after opposing quarterbacks. Texas ranks third nationally with 34 sacks and Howard will be facing an aggressive front seven.
Texas has won two close games the last two weeks and another could further ease the pressure on Strong because it would make the Longhorns bowl eligible. Texas didn't make a bowl in 2015. But a loss would be another stark reminder that Strong promised back in 2014 that Texas would never lose five games in a season again.