NORMAN, Okla. -- The whispers were there, especially late in the season.
"He’s a long way from that. We wouldn’t do that," Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said. "He’s got a long way to get to that level."
He does. He and just about anyone who saw him play last season agree on that.
But it's hard not to notice. Since Roy Williams, it's hard to recall a player filling Oklahoma's nickel back position better than Tony Jefferson did in 2010, even as a true freshman.
Jefferson has heard the hype, but this early in his career, there's not much else to do but shrug and get back to work.
"I feel good hearing that stuff, but I feel I have a long way to go. We all know that, but if I continue to do what I’m doing and working hard, the sky’s the limit for me. Maybe I won’t reach the level of a Roy Williams, but as long as I’m putting in the maximum effort I can, I’ll be happy," he said.
Jefferson has spent time working with Williams this spring, which has not helped to shoo the comparisons. Williams, like loads of other NFL players locked out of their pro facilities, has been back on Oklahoma's campus this offseason.
He's offered Jefferson tips on positioning his feet for a blitz and gaining leverage for hitting, among other things.
"You’ve seen Roy hit, and I’d love to do what he does," Jefferson said.
Added defensive coordinator Brent Venables: "That’d be a great mentor."
Hyperbolic comparisons aside, there's no denying Jefferson's excellence in 2010. He finished his debut season with 65 tackles, seven tackles for loss, a pair of sacks and a pair of picks. He enrolled early at Oklahoma with an already-deep knowledge of the game. Add a spring, a fall camp and a season, and Oklahoma had a young player who looked the part of a veteran, and one easily qualified to be named co-Big 12 defensive freshman of the year.
"He understands football. He just has a feel for the game. You can overcome some of your inexperience when you find the football and just understand the game," Venables said. "Some guys come in with a world of talent, but they don’t have a lot of background and foundation in regards to football 101. Two backs and two tight ends is just like five-wide to some guys. They don’t understand. They didn’t learn. Tony came here with a strong foundation."
In high school, Jefferson played multiple positions on both sides of the ball. This spring, in addition to the nickel back position, he's playing some more traditional strong safety.
Still just a rising sophomore, he's already seen a lot.
"Once we got through the first two or three games, you saw consistent play, good play and maturity beyond his years. As you see that early on, you’d expect him that, the more he played, the better he’d get, and that’s what happened," Stoops said. "He’s just got confidence and the ability to make plays. He’s got a great sense of the ball and where plays need to be made, and he just has a great feel for the game."
Fortunately for the Sooners, Jefferson also has a feel for his place in the game and what's to come.
"I played OK [last year], but I have a lot of improvement to do, which is why this offseason is so important for me. There’s a lot of work for me to do to get to where I want to be," he said. "Every week I just knew, I always had at least one mistake that I knew I could improve on, and that’s part of getting better, having self-constructive criticism. That’ll help me a lot this summer."