FAYETTEVILLE — KJ Jefferson does not have to venture far to get pampered.
Less than one mile from Arkansas’ practice fields outside Walker Pavilion sits Spoil U Nail & Spa on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Inside those walls, he is a familiar face.
Upon walking through the door he is almost immediately pointed to a chair. In the past, Jefferson has attempted to bring a few of the Razorbacks’ offensive linemen with him, but they have been slower to latch on.
He typically stops in by himself. The staff always treats him right.
“Every Thursday I go get a pedicure and a manicure during the season,” Jefferson said this summer. “I feel like if I don’t get that done I might have a bad game. I tried it the first game (last season) and I had a pretty OK game.
"I kept doing it and it kept progressing and kept climbing.”
He, admittedly, is superstitious and not a fan of straying from the routine he has created two days out from a game.
“I actually go in there and every time I show up, they know what I want,” he added. “I walk in there, pedicure and manicure. Let’s go. Let’s get it rocking.
"You know I've got to get that done."
During a game week, Jefferson, who likens dissecting defenses to playing a video game, dedicates roughly two hours each day to watching film on his own. He will view more film with coaches and take steps toward putting a game plan together for the next team on the Razorbacks’ schedule.
Altogether, he consumes 3-4 hours of tape per day. This week, Cincinnati is the focus.
There are also position group meetings, on-field practices and, for a player of Jefferson’s status, likely media obligations. But by the time Thursday rolls around it is time for Jefferson to think of himself.
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Everything he does is geared toward ensuring he is in top form on Saturdays. From there, Jefferson is able to lead Arkansas and its offense to the best of his ability and handle it with great care.
Taking the reins following spot duty the previous two seasons and one year under Florida transfer Feleipe Franks, Jefferson was one of the stories of the SEC season in 2021. But his first season as the Razorbacks’ starter began with some bumps in the road in terms of accuracy, which was something of a concern going in.
Jefferson threw one touchdown and two interceptions in Arkansas’ first two games against Rice and Texas. But in the team’s final 11 games, he recorded 20 touchdown passes against two picks.
The challenging start reminded the quarterback of a stretch of his high school career, and he leaned on that experience.
“In high school I came out the first couple of games and I threw like two interceptions and the next game I threw one,” Jefferson recalled. “I told my coach and my team, ‘You don’t have to worry about me throwing any more interceptions.’ For the rest of the season when I was in high school I only had three interceptions. Coming out to college, same thing kind of happened. I told my team again, ‘You don’t have to worry about me turning the ball over no more for the rest of the season.’
“With that being said, I’m just locked in to that mentality going in, like, ‘Hey, if I’m turning the ball over then I’m putting my guys in a bad spot and this team in a bad position to win.’ With me and everybody looking up to me, if I take care of the ball and I’m pushing the ball down the field and making sure I’m making great decisions then I’m putting my team in the best position to win.
“I’m always thinking about them more than me.”
Ball security is constantly a topic of discussion with Jefferson and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles — in team meetings, before games and during them. Briles learned from his father, Art, that a team holds a 75% chance of winning a game if it is plus-1 in the turnover margin.
Those odds dip to 25% if that team is in the red one giveaway.
Jefferson’s 2021 season was unique in terms of taking his fair share of shots down the field while keeping the football largely out of harm’s way. Not only was his interception rate low, but his interceptable throws – passes that could have been picked off but were not – were few and far between.
That level of valuing possession, he said, goes back to all of his time spent viewing film and understanding coverages, decoding disguises pre-snap and assuring protections are right for potential blitzes. Jefferson focused much of his spring on the mental side of the game and being a disciplined leader.
“Just knowing where the ball should go,” Jefferson said. “It all comes down to a timing perspective. You take care of the ball, you’ve got a high chance of winning. The whole goal and mindset with this team is being able to take care of the ball on the offensive side and giving us a chance to win each and every game.
“(Briles and I) talk about any and every thing. We talk about more unrelated football stuff than we do football stuff. It just goes to show you the trust that I have in him and the bond we share and what an amazing guy that he is. Then, just coming back another season and being able to be in his system once again, I’m trying to put up numbers and dominate the SEC.”
Jefferson’s goals this summer included managing his weight, being consistent on and off the field and enjoying his down time. His aim was to get to 230-235 pounds and remain in that range for the upcoming season.
Given his numbers a season ago — 3,340 yards, 27 touchdowns — a slimmer Jefferson could be even more problematic for opposing defenses. And it can help his cause with minds at the next level.
When assessing his successful first run through a schedule in control of one side of the ball, Jefferson’s greatest takeaway was that he impacted both. He did so with his voice, which has power.
“When I’m just talking or I go to say something it captures everybody’s attention and everybody is very attentive,” he said. “Just knowing that my voice is powerful and people will go as I say go, basically. I’m able to say something here and there and hold others accountable, making sure they live up to the expectations that the coaches try to instill in us, and the trust. Believe. That’s the main thing — just believe in what they’re saying and trust the process.
“Any time I go to lead or step up in a crunch-time situation when Coach needs a leader to step up or a captain to step up, I’m able to step up for him and lead my team. I watch everybody lock in and pay attention.”
Jefferson is growing more and more confident speaking to the team in various settings in large part because of Arkansas’ strength and conditioning staff. It has urged him to come out of his shell more.
He also took notes from Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry and other outspoken players who have moved on in recent years.
On the field, he graded out at 90% in the spring, according to Briles. The quarterback’s confidence is what stood out to Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman in that stretch, too.
“The biggest improvement that I’ve seen is just knowledge of seeing the game before it happens – pre-snap looks, things of that nature,” Pittman said. “He’s much better in his reads than what he was at any time last year. He’s a lot better player than what he was last year.
“It’s because he sees the game faster. He’s mature, older, stronger, things of that nature. I think he’s really improved a lot.”
Jefferson has a lot to look back on and smile about from his 2021. One outlet prior to the season considered him the No. 14 starting quarterback in the SEC. He proved the doubters wrong. The best part of being counted out, he said, is those people never see you coming.
Jefferson is perhaps in the top three in that category entering Week 1 on account of past production and momentum built late last season. He completed 76.3% of his 97 pass attempts in November for 921 yards and 6 touchdowns.
He added 245 rushing yards and one score in the final five games, as well. But his numbers are far from what he is proudest of.
“Making history. I would say that was the main thing,” Jefferson said. “Going through my recruitment process, I didn’t want to be a part of history. I wanted to make my own. Being able to have a story to tell to my kids when I have some and being able to just focus on the journey that’s ahead of me right now.
“I had fun just seeing my teammates’ faces and the older guys being here and being able to win all three trophies back for the state of Arkansas and for each other.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Hawgs Illustrated Football Preview issue