NORMAN, Okla. -- His back was turned and he couldn't see the Ball State receiver, yet Tony Jefferson could sense the action coming in his direction.
The Oklahoma safety backpedaled, leapt and plucked the ball out of the air with his right hand, his second of three interceptions on three consecutive possessions against Ball State last season. It was an exceptional play displaying Jefferson's ball skills, instincts and athleticism -- all in a matter of seconds.
The words of former Sooners great Roy Williams, who was a sideline commentator during the broadcast of the game, said it all: "You can't teach that."
It's meaningful that those words came from Williams -- one of only three Sooners who have received the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back and the player whose name comes up often when OU coaches talk about Jefferson's playmaking prowess.
Jefferson has a reputation as a playmaker, boosted by his three-interception performance against Ball State and tendency to step up in big games. As a sophomore in 2011, the California native had four tackles, one sack and one interception against Texas and eight tackles with one sack against Florida State.
His OU teammates recognized the talent early in his career, shortly after he arrived in Norman in January 2010 as an early-enrollee freshman.
"He stepped out there in spring ball and was ready to play -- he had that attitude," cornerback Demontre Hurst said about Jefferson's first spring in Norman. "That level of expectation had me thinking he could play. He pretty much blew my mind, stepped up and made plays for the team."
As a true freshman in 2010, Jefferson had 65 tackles, including seven tackles for loss, two sacks and two interceptions. He followed his strong debut with 74 tackles, including 7.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and four interceptions last season.
As Jefferson enters his junior season, he's looking to take his game to another level and become one of the nation's top defensive backs while thrusting his name into the battle for the 2012 Thorpe Award. He's already a member of the Thorpe watch list.
A move to free safety under new defensive coordinator Mike Stoops could put Jefferson in the perfect position to become OU's fourth Thorpe Award winner with a standout season. After playing nickelback in OU's defensive system during his first two seasons, Jefferson will be freed up to make plays and act on instinct this fall.
"The strong part of my game is instincts," Jefferson said. "I don't know what it is, but I can feel when something's coming, when plays are coming. That's a big part of my game."
Jefferson's natural ability and unique instincts separated him as one of OU's top players as a sophomore.
"The plays that Tony makes are impressive," OU coach Bob Stoops said. "There are things that you just can't coach and he really has a knack for that."
With the way he works and his natural talent, his potential is unlimited. Whether he lives up to that or not? That's going to be on Tony.
"-- Senior defensive end R.J. Washington on Tony Jefferson
Upon his return to Norman, Mike Stoops wanted to put his defenders in the best positions to succeed, hence Jefferson's move to free safety.
"Tony's a very instinctive player," Hurst said. "I feel like he feels more comfortable back there; he's loose, he's free. He just reads, comes down and makes plays. It's a really good thing for him to be back there with his style of play."
The junior impressed his new position coach immediately this spring, becoming one of the leaders of the defense. At 5-foot-11, 212 pounds, he's the ideal size for a free safety under Mike Stoops.
"I knew he was good, but I didn't realize he was this good," Mike Stoops said.
Said Jefferson: "I like being at free safety. It's like being the quarterback of the defense. You see everything, you make calls, you see what plays might be coming in the future."
When fall camp opened, Mike Stoops said he was looking for "difference-makers" on his defense and Jefferson could be the first defender the Sooners can turn to when they need a big play.
"I feel like I know the defense more [after the spring]," Jefferson said. "All I have to do is make more plays and put myself in position to make more plays and continue to be a leader on this team."
If he does, Williams, Rickey Dixon and Derrick Strait could have company when the greatest defensive backs in OU history are discussed.
"With the way he works and his natural talent, his potential is unlimited," defensive end R.J. Washington said. "Whether he lives up to that or not? That's going to be on Tony.
"However good Tony wants to be, that's how good he's going to be. Tony is blessed with speed, strength and good eyes, so he can be great. He's just got to want to go get it every day."