Malik Jefferson and Patrick Vahe each arrived at Texas in the ballyhooed 2015 recruiting class and each went on to earn freshman All-American honors. If Jefferson was the playmaking leader of the Longhorns defense, Vahe was the engine driving the Texas offensive line.
Last season, as the Longhorns crashed to a 5-7 record that drove Charlie Strong out of town after three seasons, both players experienced sophomore slumps and were benched for the Kansas State game. Jefferson has reconciled last season’s problems and is poised for a big season.
Vahe, known for the long, curly hair spilling out from under his helmet and pregame haka dances, became withdrawn and silent. He wasn’t having fun and had lost his desire to play the sport he loves. He was, for a time, lost.
“My mind’s been on the wrong path,” Vahe said recently. “My effort really wasn’t there. It really wasn’t what was needed for the team at that moment. It was just a personal problem of mine. It was my decision to get back to where I needed to be. But I’m on a different road right now.”
One example of his rededication is a refined body mass. Vahe lost 15 pounds of fat and gained 8 pounds of lean muscle during the Longhorns offseason workouts and training.
Another is his bond with the All-American to his left on the Texas line. While Vahe was a 4-star recruit, left tackle Connor Williams was “just” a 3-star. But Williams was an All-American last season and, if he leaves Austin after his junior season, is likely to be an NFL first-round draft pick. When playing to their potentials, Williams and Vahe form a fordable left side.
“I think he has a lot of resolve,” Williams said of his teammate’s desire to bounce back from last season. “I think he’s got a whole new outlook. He’s always been one of the biggest personalities in the locker room. He always made sure there was music in the locker room, so it’s good to see him locked in and fired up.”
It’s a mutual admiration society.
“I look at Connor like a brother,” Vahe said. “And I give him a lot of respect for all the work he’s put in. He’s not to himself, either. He gives back to his teammates, and he’s very humble about everything that’s being said about him. And what I like best about him — and what people don’t know about Connor — is he’s a very outgoing and very goofy guy.”
Vahe has fought off a challenge for the starting spot from redshirt freshman Patrick Hudson, nicknamed “The Hulk,” and coach Tom Herman is convinced that Vahe is back to the form he exhibited as a freshman.
“Pat has had a great summer,” Herman said. “I expect when we put the pads on that we’ll see more and more of that. He had a great spring, too. He’s our starting left guard right now and he’ll be tough to beat out.”
Listed on the UT roster at 6-foot-4, 320 pounds, Vahe always has been a road grader when it comes to run blocking. And while Williams is an outstanding pass blocker, Vahe needs improvement in that phase of his game. The Longhorns offense ranked 101st nationally in sacks allowed (2.67 per game).
Vahe believes his weight loss, body shaping and improved techniques will be a big help.
“I feel a lot lighter,” he said. “My cardio has gone up. So my stamina is up. The biggest thing I’ve focused on is footwork and making sure I have a lot of balance in my steps.”
And a final example of Vahe’s rejuvenation also highlighted Herman’s resolve to renovate the program’s football locker room. The new coach and his strength coach Yancy McKnight encountered Vahe shortly after the regime change. He was sitting in front of his locker, music blaring from his own personal speaker.
“Vahe’s sitting there, and we were like, ‘There’s no surround sound in here?’ ” McKnight asked. “And Vahe just shook his head and laughed.”
Vahe is one of several talented players the new staff hopes to turn up to 11 so that Texas makes noise on the field this season.
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