- Sam Khan Jr., ESPN Staff Writer
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It might be time for Texas A&M to retire -- at least for a few days -- the hashtag Aggies often used on social media this year in relation to recruiting: #WRTS.
“We Run This State”? Not today.
Texas won a critical head-to-head recruiting battle over Texas A&M on Friday morning when a pair of Mesquite (Texas) Poteet High teammates, ESPN 300 linebacker Malik Jefferson and four-star athlete DeAndre McNeal, announced that they’re Austin-bound.
It’s impossible to win them all, but this was one Kevin Sumlin and his staff needed to win.
Jefferson, the No. 35 player in the country, was a priority recruit for the Aggies, while landing McNeal -- who would have likely projected to receiver, a talent-rich position at A&M -- would have been a bonus. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound Jefferson was the one that Sumlin and linebackers coach Mark Hagen have spent nearly two years developing a relationship with and pinning their hopes on as a game-changer at a position of need: linebacker.
The Aggies offered Jefferson a scholarship 632 days ago. Over that time, as Texas A&M’s defense struggled and Jefferson’s profile rose, the need to land him increased. What’s worse for A&M is that the Aggies seemed in prime position to do so only to lose momentum in the final days of the recruitment for myriad reasons, but none more glaring than the fact that Sumlin has yet to hire a defensive coordinator to replace Mark Snyder, whom he fired on Nov. 28. Jefferson stated as much in talking about the final weeks of his recruitment.
The famed maroon helicopter Sumlin once touted as “undefeated”? No more.
Sumlin took said helicopter to Rockwall, Texas, to watch Jefferson and McNeal on Sept. 25 when they played Rockwall-Heath High. It was that night that he became sold enough on McNeal to later offer the versatile, 6-foot-2, 200-pound prospect and at the time, it seemed to be a safe bet that Jefferson was leaning toward A&M where some of his friends -- like ESPN 300 quarterback Kyler Murray and ESPN 300 defensive tackle Daylon Mack, among others -- are heading.
The Aggies were quietly confident they’d land Jefferson after his official visit to Texas A&M the weekend of their Nov. 15 loss to Missouri, which Jefferson attended. The nation's third-ranked outside linebacker was wowed during his time there. He also was impressed on visits to Texas and UCLA, but ultimately, Sumlin was confident.
Sumlin’s pitch to Jefferson? He’s the missing piece the Aggies need on defense to pair with star-in-the-making freshman defensive end Myles Garrett. The need for quality linebacker depth was clear when Texas A&M’s two true freshmen starters at the position -- Otaro Alaka and Josh Walker -- suffered injuries in that loss. That night, the Aggies promptly saw their run defense go to hell in a handbasket, as the Tigers rolled up 202 rushing yards in the third quarter alone with Alaka and Walker sidelined en route to a 34-27 Missouri win. A&M made the decision midseason to move Alaka and Walker into starting linebacker spots after ineffectiveness from their predecessors in the season’s first half.
The Aggies struggled getting (or keeping) quality linebackers on campus since Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart graduated after the 2012 season. In their 2013 recruiting class, they seemed to find a future star in Darian Claiborne, but dismissed him from the team after multiple arrests. Injuries affected 2013 recruits Shaan Washington and A.J. Hilliard this season and other linebacker prospects from that class either played sparingly or haven't been effective.
The 2014 linebacker haul included Alaka and Walker, but ESPN 300 linebacker Hoza Scott -- once ranked the No. 1 outside linebacker in the nation -- was a nonqualifier and thus wasn't signed, never made it to campus and the Aggies weren’t able to land other ESPN 300 linebackers they targeted in the class like Kenny Young or Zach Whitley Jr. Add Jefferson to the list of “what ifs” should he stick with Texas until classes begin in January, as he is a midyear enrollee.
Jefferson would have been a key piece to the defensive puzzle, one the Aggies sorely needed. Could a splash defensive coordinator make enough of a difference to flip Jefferson? Possible, but unlikely. Jefferson took great time and care in this decision and it will be difficult to reverse, especially with his family's support in him choosing Texas.
Malik Jefferson's father on A&M trying for flip when they get DC: "A commitment from a Jefferson is final. It's over."
— Max Olson (@max_olson) December 19, 2014
The lack of a defensive coordinator was key here, but regardless of recruiting, Sumlin has to get that hire right. After two seasons of atrocious defense and a sixth-place finish in the SEC West this season, the pressure is on to get someone who will produce elite results and help the Aggies turn into contenders in the nation’s most talked-about conference. Sumlin and the Aggies are about to enter Year 4 in the SEC and it’s time to see results of the recruiting the Aggies have been talking about producing.
The Aggies still have a top-10 recruiting class (they’re ranked sixth in the ESPN Class Rankings currently) and there are still big targets on the board that they’re strongly in the mix for, like five-star cornerback Kendall Sheffield.
But no matter the reasoning, two days after landing the nation's No. 30 player, ESPN 300 receiver Christian Kirk and three junior college prospects, Friday goes down as a loss for the Aggies and a win for the Longhorns. Sumlin said Thursday that missing a defensive coordinator or receivers coach hadn’t affected recruiting yet.
On Friday, it did.
The Longhorns ran the state on Friday morning. The Aggies have work to do in the final seven weeks of the 2014 recruiting cycle.
Not having a defensive coordinator put A&M at a disadvantage is the race to woo Malik Jefferson.