SAN DIEGO — For Tony Jefferson, the Arizona Cardinals’ week of training camp in San Diego before a preseason game against the Chargers is a work trip, but it’s also a bit of a homecoming.
Though he played college football for Oklahoma, the safety attended Eastlake High School in Chula Vista, Calif., and led his team to the San Diego Division I CIF title as a senior.
Tuesday night, he and the Cardinals will be practicing in Qualcomm Stadium, home of the Chargers and Friday they will take the field again for an exhibition matchup.
“This is actually going to be my first time, like, ‘playing’ playing,” he said. “My CIF game was … was here.
“But the last time we played here for preseason, I don’t even think I played that game. This is going to be my first time actually playing on this field.”
For Jefferson, the opportunity to play in front of family, friends and former coaches is nice, and he said he’ll have to “show out, put out a little performance a little bit.”
Formerly an undrafted rookie free agent, in three seasons he has amassed 165 total tackles, two interceptions and three sacks. He has also forced four fumbles. As his game has grown, so too has his role.
“He’s improved each year,” Cardinals coach Bruce Arians said. “He came in this year with the lowest body fat, the leanest he’s ever been. He looks real good. He’s communicating better; he was one of our captains last week, which that speaks volumes.”
But perhaps what says more about Jefferson, who is listed at 5-foot-11 and 212 pounds, is what he is saying.
The 24-year-old has taken on more of a leadership role this season, and in a secondary that already features Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu — a pair of notable, outspoken players — his ascension to that role is seen only as a good thing.
“That’s one of the things he and I talked about,” Arians said. “It’s time for him to be a more vocal leader.”
Jefferson laughed when asked if he’s ever had anyone tell him he needed to be more vocal, because off the field, he’s anything but bashful.
“That’s just one thing I’ve had to do, step up, be a leader,” he said. “I’ve done some things that have caught some people by surprise, you know, because usually I’m not as vocal. But I’ve been pretty vocal. I’m the guy talking back there in the secondary and doing all the checks and all that stuff.
“A lot of guys are looking to me to get answers and stuff like that.”
For the first three seasons of Jefferson’s career, he did not have to be that guy as Rashad Johnson played the role of sage safety. But with Johnson signing with Tennessee this offseason, a leadership void was created. Jefferson, who has appeared in every possible game over the last three seasons, is trying to fill it.
Jefferson admitted that with Johnson around, he was more of the learner, the listener. He added that at Johnson’s wedding, the former Cardinal told him it was time for him to step up because it was a big year for the fourth-year pro. Johnson, Jefferson said, told him he could do it.
“So we had motivational talks and stuff like that,” he said.
For Jefferson, who is playing under a one-year contract after going through restricted free agency without an offer sheet, adding leadership to his resume certainly will not hurt his career prospects.
Saying one wants to be a leader does not automatically mean one is, in fact, a leader. For Jefferson, the process has been a steady one, and it required ability, opportunity and confidence.
“You have to have confidence. You can’t whisper the calls out or anything,” he said. “You’ve got to yell, so if you know it, you’ve got to speak it. Especially with the young guys in there on defense, they’ve got to hear the checks so you’ve got to be vocal.”
Jefferson’s ability to lead does not only manifest itself on the field. He said he’s never been nervous about speaking up in front of the team, so when he feels like something needs to be said, he’ll say it.
The first time he really spoke up worked out pretty well.
“I had a good response from the guys, and they kind of look for me to say stuff, you know, I’m breaking down the huddle, breaking down the team and stuff,” he said. “So it’s definitely a new role and stuff for me this year.”
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