During Tony Jefferson's freshman year of high school, his coaches at Chula Vista (Calif.) Eastside promoted him to the varsity for the playoffs.
Trailing a talented Oceanside team, coach John McFadden planned to put Jefferson in for a “play or two” in the second half.
“We were getting beat up a little,” McFadden said. “We said, ‘What the heck? Let's put him in and see what he can do.”
A few plays turned into playing a lot. Jefferson recorded two sacks, three tackles and caused a fumble.
“We were like, ‘Whoa! This kid is for real,'” McFadden said. “We said, ‘Why didn't have him up all year?'”
From that point on, Jefferson displayed traits that helped him develop into one of the top players in the San Diego area. Those traits are also the a reason McFadden believes Jefferson has a shot at being an All-American in his junior season at Oklahoma.
Jefferson played much of his first two seasons at strongside linebacker, a position OU coaches label the Roybacker, a position named after former star Roy Williams.
“They're similar in some ways, and they both understand football very well,” said defensive coordinator Mike Stoops. “When you teach them, they pick up things very well. Tony's not as big as Roy, but he has a lot of the same components. He has a knack for making big plays.”
OU coaches moved Jefferson to free safety late last season after Javon Harris was burned repeatedly in a loss at Baylor.
This spring, it became a permanent move. Jefferson gives coaches confidence he can minimize blown coverages that plagued the Sooners.
“I watched him in the Iowa game and he played free safety very well,” Stoops said. “The big thing for Tony is just staying within the confines of the defense and don't try to make every play.
Last season, Jefferson finished third on the team with 74 tackles. He also recorded 4 1/2 sacks and four interceptions. He likes the change.
“It's pretty much the same thing,” Jefferson said. “It's just a more instinctive spot. I enjoy being back there reading the quarterback and messing with the quarterback's head a little.”
OU coaches wouldn't mind seeing Jefferson mess with some of his teammates' heads a little.
With four-year starter Travis Lewis and other seniors leaving for the NFL, Jefferson will be one of the defensive leaders.
“He's a guy people will follow,” McFadden said. “He has a great personality. There's nobody who got to the ball faster or had a better reaction. But what makes him really special is he's the type of player others emulate.”
Jefferson, wide receiver Kenny Stills and running back Brennan Clay, who now form OU's “Cali Trio,” made a pact to attend a school halfway across the country.
Jefferson, though, was the last of the trio to commit to OU. He first committed to Stanford, then UCLA before finally choosing the Sooners.
“We joked he was like the girl going to the prom, who wanted to keep all his options open,” McFadden said. “He kept changing his mind. But once he made up his mind he was committed. He loves it out there, loves the coaches and loves the players.”
Clay is the quiet one. Stills and Jefferson are outspoken.
“I used to joke with him that he was having too much fun in practice,” McFadden said. “But he always approached it to get better and was always ready to play. There's nothing wrong with having a little fun as long as you put the work in. That's exactly what Tony does.”
Jefferson is a leader Mike Stoops will build around.
“He's been very efficient, very productive,” Stoops said. “I'm as pleased with him as anyone. I knew he was good, but I didn't realize he was this good.”
It was the same type of revelation John McFadden and his staff discovered seven years ago at Eastside High School.