Like a marathon runner who sees nothing but miles and miles of road up ahead, Cory Jefferson has a hard time seeing the finish line. All he sees are days and days or practices and grueling weight-room sessions.
The 6-foot-9 sophomore forward from Killeen, Texas, suits up for every game and even traveled to Hawaii. But barring a rash of injuries that would make him remove the redshirt, Jefferson is taking the year off to gain strength and add some weight to his lean, 200-pound frame.
"The great thing about Cory is this redshirt year allows him to do the No. 1 thing he needs to do, and that's to gain strength and mature," said Baylor coach Scott Drew. "You mature and gain strength over time and with age, just like in football when you redshirt a guy that first year to get him that college strength. Cory came in on the lean side. There are two ways you can approach a redshirt year: get by it or improve during it. And I think Cory's really done the improving side."
Slowly, step by step, progress is being made.
The all-time shot blocker at Killeen High School, Jefferson was the TABC Class 4A Player of the Year and a first-team all-state pick in 2009, when he averaged 19.5 points and 6.2 rebounds. While he was ranked as the 33rd-best prospect nationally and the No. 11 power forward by Rivals.com, Jefferson came in at just 180 pounds.
Going against players like Josh Lomers, Ekpe Udoh and Quincy Acy every day in practice, Jefferson got tossed around like a paper doll. As a true freshman, he averaged just 1.3 points, 1.2 rebounds and 4.6 minutes for a team that lost to eventual national champion Duke in the Elite Eight.
"Coach (Drew) pointed it out to me. Last year, I was going against Josh and Ekpe," Jefferson said. "Ekpe was the No. 6 pick in the NBA draft, and I think Josh was one of the best big men in the Big 12 and the country last year. And then this year, we have (6-11 freshman forward Perry Jones III) and Quincy. (Acy) is just a physical player. He's teaching me to play physical, because I know when I first got here, I wasn't as physical. I wasn't very physical at all."
That's the ultimate goal of this redshirt season: Not only to put on the weight, but to add enough strength to hold up to the nightly beatings you receive as a post player in the Big 12 Conference.
"The main thing is to try to get him in a body that can hold a post position," said associate strength and conditioning coach Charlie Melton. "He's struggled with his weight. Just to have him at 205 consistently is an accomplishment. He's long, he's tall, but he's got to play at 225, 230 to be a force. He's very athletic. And the main thing is he doesn't try to get out of it. He's there. And now that he's 205, 206 - we've even seen 208 on a couple big days - he's buying in, because he wants to get bigger."
Typical of most tall basketball players, Jefferson has an ectomorph body type, which is characterized by a light build, slight muscular development and little body fat.
"He's got smaller joints, naturally long, naturally lean, naturally thin, which makes him great at basketball and a great jumper," Melton said. "But it makes it really tough for him to get in a big-man body. Cory's better at holding at weight than (junior forward) Anthony Jones. Anthony is like a pure ectomorph. He's never going to put on weight. We had him at 197, and it slipped. Cory's never slipped, he's never regressed. And that's encouraging. Usually you have guys gain, lose, gain, lose. And Cory continues to climb."
Looking at him, you notice the added tone and muscle right away. Jefferson's not ready to enter a body-building competition, but at least he doesn't look like the "before" shot of the guy who gets sand kicked in his face.
"I can tell a little difference, and everybody tells me they can see a difference," Jefferson said. "That's one of the main things we've been working on. I know coach (Drew) wanted to make sure I got stronger this season while I'm taking the year off, and make sure that I work on my upper body and my legs."
Melton said the hardest part is working with the coaches on the balancing act of strength-training workouts and the daily grind of practices.
"He has to practice and run, because you need him at a higher skill set," Melton said. "But with that in mind, I can't come in here and squat him and lunge him and really get after him like an off-season workout. Like all long, tall guys with tendonitis, Cory's knees sometimes bother him. And if you get in here and squat him and then he goes to practice and does a 20-minute individual with a coach, he's going to be in pain for three days, and you're not going to get anything out of him. So you've got that balance of trying to keep coach cool and keep Cory moving along."
When Jefferson agreed to redshirt this season, he knew it would be hard. The toughest point might have been the season opener, when reality set in that he wasn't going into the game . . . all year.
And then when the Bears (13-5, 3-2) lost two of three at the tournament in Hawaii, Jefferson went through another tough stretch.
"I guess I was thinking maybe I could have helped or something, I could have made a difference," he said. "It's been like a roller coaster this year. I've kind of been taking it in segments. Now that we're into conference, I'm like, `All right, it's conference. I can make it.'''
In addition to being pushed by them every day in practice, Jefferson has also been encouraged by his teammates to persevere in his extra strength-training sessions.
"The guys always tease him in a good way and talk about how many workouts he's doing, telling him he's getting too strong," Melton said. "So they've been great teammates to help him through that process. His bench press has gone up, his over-head strength has gone up, his ability to do weighted pull-ups. He used to not do pull-ups very well, and now we can hang weights around his waist, and he can do them. He's definitely getting stronger."
Ideally, Jefferson will bulk up to 225 by next fall and be ready to slide into the lineup, especially if Jones III leaves early for the NBA draft, as expected. And with the Bears 18 games into the season, he can at least see the finish line, even if it's still way out there.
"You look at Cory, and he has such a great upside," Drew said. "And I think (the redshirt year) benefits him, too, having a chance to play his best basketball in college instead of a couple years out. Because the better you do in college, the better chance they have to make money playing the game when they get out."
Sic 'em, Bears!!!!
From making my all-time, all-interview team as a player, to pulling in every recruit he ever hosted, to giving back to his alma mater in his first stop on a coaching journey that took him to the very top Monday night, Trooper Taylor was the ultimate Baylor Bear.
Heck, to prove that his blood was green and gold, Trooper got married on the turf at Floyd Casey Stadium in 1993 in a ceremony that included Baylor All-Americans Santana Dotson and James Francis. His wife, the former Evi Crosby, ran on the track team for the Bears.
So it was with a little Baylor pride that I watched Trooper on the sidelines of Monday's BCS National Championship game in Glendale, Ariz., as the Auburn Tigers defeated 2nd-ranked Oregon, 22-19.
Even though he's now 40 - and believe me, that makes me feel old - it was hard to mistake that boyish enthusiasm as the Tigers' assistant head coach and wide receivers coach waved that towel, butt-bumped players and hugged head coach Gene Chizik as the team gave him the celebratory Gatorade shower.
An all-state player from Cuero, Texas, Taylor set school records for kickoff returns (53) and yards (1,063) at Baylor and was a solid defensive back who came back from a knee injury to make the game-clinching, fourth-down stop in a 21-20 win over Texas in coach Grant Teaff's final game at Floyd Casey Stadium.
But he made even a bigger contribution as a recruiting host. I remember him boasting that he had only missed out on one player, and he signed with Michigan.
I once accused him of raiding the Trib's newspaper racks after a feature story ran that day. But honestly, he was just that popular. People loved him.
Trooper spent five more years at Baylor, including the last three as a full-time assistant coach, before stops at New Mexico (1998), Tulane (1999-2003), Tennessee (2004-07) and Oklahoma State (2008), where he was the co-offensive coordinator under former Baylor assistant Mike Gundy.
The journey took him to Auburn, Ala., last year, where he joined Chizik in a program that reached the ultimate heights last night.
"A lot of blessings from God," Taylor said of his journey. "It has just been phenomenal how He has shaped my career. My wife and I were talking about it the other day, that every job we've taken, we've taken because we wanted to and not because we had to.
"It has been God's blessing, because even when some people said, `Boy, you should've taken that job,' and I didn't, and it was more money and all that, it still panned out. So I really feel like I've been better than blessed."
And those blessings started 22 years ago as an 18-year-old freshman defensive back at Baylor University. Congrats, Trooper!
Sic 'em, Bears!!!!