Norman, Okla. It wasn’t until after Tony Jefferson started to excel in Oklahoma’s nickel back position that he began to hear the buzz about Roy Williams.
Eventually, he had to check it out for himself. He pulled up highlights of the former All-American who all but created the position he plays. Some people in Norman still refer to it simply as “Roy.”
One play still stands out.
It’s the first one coach Bob Stoops referred to Tuesday when asked about his best memories from the Sooners’ Red River Rivalry series against Texas. It happened a decade ago, with third-ranked Oklahoma leading, 7-3, and No. 5 Texas taking over just outside its own goal line with a chance for a game-winning drive with little more than 2 minutes left in the game.
Williams went flying over a blocker, forcing Texas quarterback Chris Simms into an interception that was returned for a touchdown and sealed the Sooners’ victory.
“I know all about Roy Williams and his ‘Superman’ move,” Jefferson said. “I would love to make a play like that. But if I’m playing like Roy, I’m flying around the field and those plays just naturally come. Hopefully I’m put in that situation where I could do that.”
Jefferson enters Saturday’s rivalry game in Dallas after perhaps his best performance since taking over one of the team’s premier playmaking positions as a freshman last season.
He intercepted passes on three straight Ball State drives last weekend and dropped a pass that would have given him four in a row, saying later it should have been his easiest pick of the day but he was already thinking about returning it for a touchdown.
Now, he’s envisioning what kind of havoc he can wreak against No. 11 Texas (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) at the Cotton Bowl. Just like Williams.
“The guy was just explosive, making plays all over the field. He tore people’s kneecaps off,” Jefferson said.
Williams established the position in Stoops’ early days in Norman, before going on to become a five-time Pro Bowler. More recently, Clint Ingram and Keenan Clayton have used the demanding position as a springboard to the NFL.
It’s part linebacker, part defensive back. But with the right person there, it’s a full-time playmaking position for the No. 3 Sooners (4-0, 1-0).
“You can drop back in coverage, you can do a little man coverage and come on blitzes and put a hit on the quarterback,” Jefferson said. “I think that is better than being at safety because you can’t really do all those type of things.”
Jefferson wasn’t sure whether he’d be playing offense or defense after starring as a running back and safety at Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, Calif. He was a bit overwhelmed after graduating early to join the Sooners, but soon he started making plays and cracked the starting lineup as a freshman.
Four games into his sophomore year, the comparisons to Williams are starting to come.
“I take it as a compliment but also it’s humbling because I feel like I haven’t reached the point to where I could say I’ve been doing as I want to be doing,” Jefferson said. “I’ve got a lot of work to do.”
Jefferson grew up in Southern California as the son of a boxer, and his father got him started in flag football at age 4.
“I didn’t want to play football. Every day at practice, I’d cry,” Jefferson said. “I didn’t want to go. My mom would tell my dad, ‘He doesn’t have to go.’ But I was forced to play.”
His father, Tony, coached him in Pop Warner ball throughout his youth until one day he agreed to his son’s request to quit playing. So, he signed him up for boxing instead.
The younger Jefferson remembers winning the first tournament he ever competed in, during sixth grade, but said “I quickly changed my mind and signed back up” for football.
“It was tiring, and getting socked in the face just for fun wasn’t what I wanted,” Jefferson said.
He stuck with it ever since, and now he credits his dad for pushing him to get better. He eventually got noticed by Oklahoma, and followed Williams’ path from California to Norman.
“I can remember watching his tape — offense, defense, everything that he did — and just saying, ‘Wow! This guy is really special.’ That’s just the athlete that he is,” Stoops said. “The plays that he makes, just over and over, there’s always just some things that you can’t coach. He just has a knack for that.”