NORMAN — When the envelope arrived, Tony Jefferson was surprised.
The Sooners were a program halfway across the country.
A running back/linebacker from the San Diego area, Jefferson was a USC fan. His dream was to be the next Reggie Bush.
"I think my third offer my junior year was USC," Jefferson said. "I was like, 'OK. I'm pretty much going there.'"
Jefferson instead ended up in Norman after San Diego-area running back Brennan Clay talked Jefferson and wide receiver Kenny Stills, another San Diego product, into taking recruiting visits to Oklahoma.
He won't be the next Reggie Bush, but Jefferson could develop into OU's next Jim Thorpe candidate.
Jefferson and Stills became the first true freshmen to start a season opener at OU since Tommie Harris in 2001.
"Tony has graded out really well," said coach Bob Stoops. "He's been really disciplined for a young guy to play really smart, to understand positioning, to understand alignment, to recognize formations, what's coming to him. It's been exciting to see."
In a nickelback platoon with Joseph Ibiloye, Jefferson made several big plays in OU's 47-17 win over Florida State, breaking up three passes and clobbering FSU quarterback Christian Ponder on a blitz.
Jefferson's hit was a defining moment. Ponder got the pass away, but the hit seemed to rattle him. Ponder was 4-of-8 before the hit and 7-of-21 with two interceptions after it.
"I think that definitely got him thinking a little bit," Jefferson said. "He was a little bit shaky about scrambling after me and Ronnell (Lewis) gave him a few hits. That gave the defense a big boost."
It's too early in his career to know whether Jefferson can have a Roy Williams-like impact. But one of his teammates has been impressed since Jefferson graduated high school early to participate in spring practice.
"He is still young, but he's got so much playmaking in him," said linebacker Travis Lewis. "Just a raw talent. At the end of his career he's gonna be one of the greats."
Jefferson played close to 60 snaps in the opener and fewer snaps last week. He is on the field when opponents have three or more receivers, while Ibiloye gets most of the two-back plays. Occasionally they're on the field together.
"As a true freshman, the more you give them, the more they're thinking, the less they're able to cut it loose and play," said defensive coordinator Brent Venables. "We're trying to give him what he can handle to play at a high level."
Two games into his career, Jefferson has looked like a veteran, sniffing out plays and closing quickly on wide receivers.
"I've always had closing speed even since Pop Warner," Jefferson said. "When I was young, I didn't know what closing speed meant ... It's just instinct."
Coaches like the current nickel platoon. Jefferson, though, is hungry to add more. He's a film junkie who studies Ibiloye's role when he's on the sideline.
"By no means has he arrived," said defensive backs coach Willie Martinez. "He's still learning our defense. We're giving him a little bit more each game ... But he has that 'it' factor coaches like to say a lot of times, the instincts, an understanding of the game."
Jefferson's role long-term is yet to be determined. And comparisons between newcomers and past greats are often unfair, whether it's Landry Jones to Sam Bradford or Jefferson to Williams.
"I do know he's from California," Jefferson said. "That's a big key right there. And I do know he came and brought the wood when it's time to hit. I know he could cover. That's what made him such a valuable player."
But if it wasn't for Clay's recruiting pitch, Jefferson might be playing on the West Coast.
"Brennan was committed forever," Jefferson said. "He was always in our ear, saying, 'You should give Oklahoma a try.' He said, 'Come out here and see what it's about.' At first I wasn't really listening to him. I was USC, then Cal. But I decided to weigh all my options."
Jefferson eventually called Bobby Jack Wright to set up a recruiting visit to watch the Sooners play Kansas State on Halloween.
"I really didn't know much about them," Jefferson said. "I ended up really liking it, the tradition, the atmosphere, the players. It all fell into place ... I love it here."
High School: Eastlake
Hometown: Chula Vista, Calif.
Noteworthy: Selected to participate in the U.S. Army All-American game, the four-star recruit recorded 88 tackles and four sacks in 2008... Graduated early to participate in OU's spring practice.
Jefferson on his nickname "El Tigre.": "A friend back home (gave it to me). Of course, Tony the Tiger. Frosted Flakes. I don't know how that got back here. I think either Kenny (Stills) or Brennan (Clay) put that up and the team has been calling me that. I actually eat Frosted Flakes. But I didn't when I was younger because I choked on a flake so my mom didn't let me eat them. I had to grow into that."