Even as Jackson Jeffcoat's career was being wrecked by injury, there was never a doubt that he could be one of the best defensive players in the country.
In his final season, the senior defensive end has proved that notion right in a big way. And if he can lead the Texas Longhorns to a win over the No. 9 Baylor Bears, he will have a stranglehold on the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year award.
A year removed from a season-ending torn pectoral, Jeffcoat has been a revelation under Greg Robinson. In just nine games under his new defensive coordinator, the Hendricks Award finalist has racked up 10 sacks and 17 tackles for loss.
Jackson Jeffcoat has been named a finalist for the Ted Hendricks Award, which goes to the best defensive end in all of college football.— College Press Box (@CollegePressBox) December 5, 2013
The senior's 10 sacks are tied for No. 10 in the nation, trailing Kansas State's Ryan Mueller for the Big 12 lead by one. His 19 tackles for loss lead the Big 12 and are good for No. 15 in the nation.
On their own, those numbers are at least worth a first-team All-Big 12 selection. After all, no other player in the conference is top-two in three separate defensive categories (Jeffcoat is also tied for second with three fumble recoveries).
This was all predictable for Jeffcoat. His father, Jim Jeffcoat, is a Hall of Fame defensive end, and the 5-star recruit's 6'5" frame and long arms all point to his success at the position.
But what should set Jeffcoat apart is his play as Texas' season winds down. In last week's 41-16 victory over Texas Tech, Robinson used Jeffcoat in a hybrid role for his "Spinner" defense. The end result was a career-high three sacks with 10 tackles on senior night for Jeffcoat.
In this defense, Jeffcoat played in every spot along the front seven. Aside from his usual spot at left end, he played tackle and all three linebacker positions, both dropping into coverage and rushing the passer from each.
Most athletic defensive ends can move over to outside linebacker for a spell. But for one to play middle linebacker and play coverage is truly an exceptional display of talent.
With starting linebacker Steve Edmond now out for the season, expect more of this from Jeffcoat in Texas' biggest game of the season. The 'Horns have to knock off Baylor for a shot at the Big 12 title, and it will take another dominant effort from Jeffcoat to pull out the win.
The Bears may average 55.4 points per game, best in the country, but have revealed a flaw in pass protection. Quarterback Bryce Petty has been sacked 10 times over his last four games, the most in the nation according to ESPN's Max Olson, so he should continue to have an impact in the backfield.
Art Briles' offense also leads the conference with 269.2 rushing yards per game, which will test just how far the senior's versatility extends.
The bottom line is that Jeffcoat is going to live in the Baylor backfield on Saturday. And if he can continue to impress at his new do-it-all position in coverage and against the run, Texas will win this game.
With the win, and another Texas Tech-like performance with double-digit tackles and multiple sacks, Jeffcoat is hands-down the Big 12's Defensive Player of the Year.