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March 28, 2011

Tony Jefferson bringing back the Roy

Since the departure of Roy Williams, Oklahoma has never been able to truly replace his presence in the Sooner defense. But they have certainly tried.

OU has tried to make the Roy-back position a part of its defense ever since Williams headed to the NFL following the end of the 2001 season. But 10 years, and plenty of converted linebackers, safeties and corners later, OU has never been able to duplicate Williams' impact as an outside linebacker/nickel back.



It almost seemed as though OU and Brent Venables were close to giving up on that search when Ronnell Lewis was ready to establish himself as a dominate strongside linebacker heading into the 2010 season.

But then Tony Jefferson arrived.

The California native took over a position so many former Sooners failed to master, and he played it better as a true freshmen than anyone since Williams. In his first season at the Roy-back spot, Jefferson accumulated 65 tackles, two interceptions, seven pass breakups, seven tackles for a loss and two quarterback sacks in 14 games.

After a long list of names such as Eric Bassey, Lewis Baker, Clint Ingram, and Donte Nicholson followed Roy Williams' at the position, Jefferson appears to be the one player who can potentially be compared to the former All-American.

"Roy just seemed so comfortable," said Jefferson, who studied film of Williams last season. "He played it kind of easy. He wasn't over reacting to anything or over running anything. He was just in the right place at the right time at all times. That's what I've got to try and do, to be like that."

But the path to greatness didn't happen quickly for Williams. Sooner fans will remember Oklahom unveiling the Roy-back position after he took over for strongside linebacker Roger Steffan in the 2001 Orange Bowl against Florida State.

It was the first time the Sooners used Williams for an entire game in place of a starting strongside linebacker.

Venables and Mike Stoops continued with the Roy-back spot into the 2001 regular season, when the legend of 'Superman' was born against Texas.

At that point, Williams had become the centerpiece of the Oklahoma defense.

And as a defensive back, Williams was the most dominant defensive player in college football as he ended up winning both the Nagurski Award (the nation's top defender) and the Thorpe Award (the nation's top defensive back).

In that 2001 season, Williams broke up 22 passes (8 more than Jamell Fleming's team-leading 14 in 2010) and he recorded 107 total tackles.

Fast forward to 2011, and those are the expectations Jefferson now carries on his shoulders as his sophomore season approaches.

That's also the challenge for Jefferson this spring.

"Throughout the whole season I was never complacent," said Jefferson of his breakout freshmen season. "I was in the film room knowing I can get better at my position. I was never satisfied and I always felt I could get better so I always tried to get better every week. I knew I could do better, but there were always mistakes between games. The fact I can come back in and try and correct those mistakes makes me a better player."

There are similarities between Jefferson and Williams on and off the field at Oklahoma. Like Williams, Jefferson is soft-spoken during interviews. But on the field, he has a mean streak.

He relishes the contact.

Jefferson is working off and on at the standard safety position this spring - just so coaches can take a look at how he might help the team from a base position. But instead of talking about how much he likes the challenge of defending receivers, he chooses to focus on how much more physical he can be further away from the line of scrimmage.

"I actually like being further back because I get to come up and it's faster to the ball carrier," he said. "I think with full pads, it'll make a big pop."

But don't let Jefferson's mean streak fool you. He's just as focused on making big plays when the ball is in the air. Williams' physical dominance often overshadowed his ability to make a play on the ball in the air. Look no further than his 2001 totals of 22 passes broken up, Williams was a master of the land and the air.

"I've been working on my flexibility a lot and opening up and really keying in on being man-on-man," said Jefferson. "You're going against some good receivers this year, so my flexibility and being able to cover receivers like Ryan Broyles is going to help me out a lot."

Comparing Jefferson's true freshmen season to Williams' career-year in 2001 isn't fair. But looking at his potential, you can't help but wonder if Jefferson has some of those special qualities that made Williams' one of the best we've ever seen at OU.

When so many others have come and gone since Williams, it's obvious the Roy-back wasn't some mystical creation that allowed any player to be great.

Williams proved it takes a special player to make the Roy-back spot great. It's just that Jefferson is the first player we've seen who might be able to live up to that name, and that position.

Right now, Jefferson is in the discussion to be the next Roy Williams. That right there is something to note.

Because after 10 years, I honestly thought that discussion had died.


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