After 2 years of filling in, QB Jefferson now in command

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson looks to pass during a scrimmage Saturday, March 20, 2021, in Fayetteville.

FAYETTEVILLE — KJ Jefferson’s first two college starts couldn’t have gone much differently.

As a true freshman in 2019, Jefferson played one quarter before he was knocked out of a 56-20 loss at No. 1 LSU, the eventual national champion. Jefferson completed 7 of 14 passes for 105 yards that night, and was harassed by the Tigers’ pass rush, resulting in 12 runs for no gain.

“From a mental standpoint, it made me mentally tough and showed me where I need to work on my mental game, to mute out the crowd and just focus on the task at hand rather than letting all the components that come into the game get to me,” Jefferson said. “I feel like it made me mentally stronger.”

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Although Jefferson was a prized recruit who committed to the Razorbacks over half the SEC, his first start didn’t instill confidence that he would one day become Arkansas’ starting quarterback.

His second start did.

That came last December when the Razorbacks lost 50-48 at Missouri. Jefferson was thrust into the starting role because Feleipe Franks injured his ribs a week earlier, but Franks was a game-time decision at Missouri, and Jefferson didn’t know he would start until the morning of the 11 a.m. game.

Jefferson completed 18 of 33 passes for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns, and rushed 13 times for 32 yards and 1 touchdown against Mizzou, which at the time ranked third in the SEC in total defense.

Playing with what he called “messed up” ligaments in his knee that he suffered earlier in the second half, Jefferson led a 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive late in the fourth quarter that culminated in a 14-yard touchdown pass to Mike Woods with 43 seconds remaining. Arkansas coach Sam Pittman opted to try a two-point conversion to give the Razorbacks the lead, and Jefferson found Woods off a deflection for what appeared to be the winning score.

Missouri kicked a 32-yard field goal as time expired to win.

Arkansas’ defensive failure did little to detract from what Jefferson accomplished during the go-ahead drive. After two incompletions to set up a third-and-10 from his own 25, Jefferson completed four consecutive passes for 34 yards and was complemented by a couple of first-down runs by TJ Hammonds to put the Razorbacks well into Mizzou territory.

Jefferson finished the drive 5 of 8 for 48 yards.

“Before we went out there I had my mind, ‘This right here is going to determine if this is for me or not. I’ve got to prove the doubters wrong, that I can play in this league,’” Jefferson said. “I went out there and gave it all I’ve got.”

It was Arkansas’ first go-ahead touchdown drive in the final five minutes of a conference game since Austin Allen led the team 56 yards in 10 plays to beat Ole Miss in 2016.

Arkansas’ last go-ahead touchdown drive in the final five minutes of an SEC road game had been engineered by Ryan Mallett at Georgia in 2010.

“I was proud of KJ Jefferson going in there and playing the entire game,” Pittman said afterward. “I thought he stepped in there and played one heck of a football game.”

Jefferson said the performance at Missouri gave him confidence to know he can lead the offense against other SEC teams.

“It let me know I can be a factor in this league,” Jefferson said. “I can dominate this league and be the best I can be in this league to help my team win.

“Being the quarterback and winning respect from my team, I felt like I did a pretty good job.”

With Franks gone, Jefferson entered the summer as Arkansas’ No. 1 quarterback because of his performance last fall and this spring, but also a little bit by default. His scholarship backups — Malik Hornsby, John Stephen Jones and true freshmen Lucas Coley and Landon Rogers — have attempted fewer passes combined (32) than Jefferson did against Missouri. Aside from Jefferson, only Jones has started a game, which he did in 2019.

Pittman called Jefferson the starter before spring practice ever began.

“He’s got command of this team,” Pittman said. “His teammates believe in him. That’s hard. You have to earn that at quarterback and he certainly has.”

One area of focus during the spring was to improve Jefferson’s footwork and accuracy. Pittman said he was pleased with the accuracy over the final four practices, including the spring game when Jefferson completed 6 of 11 passes for 153 yards and 2 touchdowns — a 33-yard pass to the since-departed Woods, and a 31-yard pass to Treylon Burks.

“Part of that is the protection’s been better. Part of that is the routes have been run better,” Pittman said of Jefferson’s improving accuracy. “But he’s done a good job.”

Jefferson called the spring “a great transition” for his footwork.

“Now that I have some experience in the SEC, I know everything speeds up and everything is faster,” Jefferson said. “If I speed my footwork up, I can make every throw on the field.

“A lot of coaches will tell you that as a quarterback everything starts from the ground up. If your feet are good, hips are good, the upper body takes care of itself. Therefore, the ball, accuracy, all that will come naturally, depending on your lower body.”

Kendal Briles’ offense might also be a little quicker with Jefferson operating behind center. While a willing runner, Franks was not as fleet of foot as Jefferson, who was one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in high school football while playing in Sardis, Miss.

“The offense has opened up a lot with the scheme that we’re running and the tempo we’ve installed, the offense with be a lot more open to drop backs or QB runs, depending on what the defense is doing,” Jefferson said. “Every quarterback in our quarterback room can make plays with their feet, so they may load the box and then we can throw the ball over the top of them. The playbook has opened up a lot more than when Feleipe was here.”

Linebacker Grant Morgan said the offense fits Jefferson.

“He really challenged us to stop him in the spring,” Morgan said. “He has become a real leader on that side of the ball and become more vocal.

“I told him at one point this spring, ‘Talk to the guys. Tell them what you want from them. You are the guy.’

“I think he’s going to be a really good quarterback. It’s going to be a real treat to watch him play.”

At 240 pounds — 25 pounds heavier than when he arrived in 2019 — Jefferson might be more durable.

“Knowing that I’ve got a lot more weight behind me, I know I can take multiple hits throughout a game and continue to produce and be a factor,” Jefferson said.

This story first appeared in the 2021 Hawgs Illustrated football preview