Tom Murphy is a reporter for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A graduate of Louisiana Tech University, he is a member of the Football Writers Association of America, and voter for the Heisman Trophy and AP Top 25 football poll. Murphy was the 2017 Arkansas Sportswriter of the Year.
Hogs confident in backups if Jefferson out
Arkansas quarterback Cade Fortin (10) is shown during a game against Alabama on Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Fayetteville.
FAYETTEVILLE — The University of Arkansas offensive coaches are having to make plans this week for a contingency they haven’t faced since KJ Jefferson took over as the starting quarterback for the 2021 season.
Because Jefferson is questionable following a blow to the helmet on Saturday, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and assistants Kenny Guiton, Cody Kennedy, Dowell Loggains and Jimmy Smith have had to hone in on plans that feature Cade Fortin and Malik Hornsby running the quarterback position for Saturday’s 11 a.m. game at No. 23. Mississippi State.
Jefferson was at practice but did not participate on Monday and Tuesday. On Wednesday, Jefferson did a little, Coach Sam Pittman said on his radio show.
“I don’t know what that means to be perfectly honest with you,” Pittman said. “He still has a ways to go on that. We’re certainly not going to play him unless he’s capable and healthy and all those things. We’re going to take him on the trip. Whether he plays or not is still waiting to be seen. We’ve got a few more days to figure that out.”
Radio show host Chuck Barrett said a quick answer just isn’t available on Jefferson’s availability because he is dealing with an injury that involved his head.
“I want an answer, too,” Pittman said. “Sometimes we read into answers what we want. I’m telling you the truth. We don’t have a clue whether he’s going to play or not. He practiced a little bit today. But we don’t know. A lot goes into that. The No. 1 concern is his health.”
Fortin took the final 12 snaps at quarterback in Saturday’s 49-26 loss to Alabama, but if Jefferson is unavailable, both Fortin and Hornsby are likely to be involved against the Bulldogs.
“Yeah, I mean, I think there’s a real possibility that we would do that,” Pittman said on Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. “Certainly we would go with a hot hand, I would say. But in our game plan, there’s certainly opportunities for both of those kids to play if KJ can’t.”
Mississippi State Coach Mike Leach said he isn’t expecting any huge departures from the Arkansas offense whether Jefferson plays or the backups take the reins.
“I think they’ll stick with what they do on offense, at least to a large extent,” Leach said. “And so, you know, you’re still preparing for the same offense.”
Jefferson, a redshirt junior, has started 18 consecutive games since taking over at quarterback. The Sardis, Miss., native started one game in 2019, waited patiently behind Feleipe Franks in 2020 while starting one more game, then grabbed the job in the spring of 2021.
Jefferson’s lone appearance as a collegian in his home state resulted in a massive performance in a 52-51 loss at Ole Miss last year.
Jefferson completed 25 of 35 passes for 326 yards and 3 touchdowns and rushed for 85 yards and 3 scores. Arkansas pulled within a point on Jefferson’s 9-yard touchdown pass to Warren Thompson on the final play of the game. Coach Sam Pittman elected to go for a two-point conversion and Jefferson threw high for Treylon Burks in the right corner of the end zone.
Fortin, from the Atlanta suburbs in Suwanee, Ga., has made four career starts — two for North Carolina as a true freshman in 2018 and two for South Florida early last year — and all have been losses for 2-win teams those seasons.
His career numbers were 61 of 121 passing (50.4%) for 610 yards, with 3 interceptions and 1 touchdown prior to last weeks’ action. Fortin was supplanted by freshman Timmy McClain last year at South Florida and entered the portal in the winter.
He came to the Razorbacks without a scholarship, impressed the coaching staff in the spring and quietly won the backup job heading into the season.
Pittman said Fortin knew and liked Mark Cala, a quality control coach on offense who works at practice with Briles who is also the team’s quarterbacks coach.
“He just wanted to find a place where he thought he could grow,” Pittman said. “He liked Mark Cala, to be honest with you. He had some sort of relationship with him before, and he obviously knew about Kendal.
“We had a need there. We didn’t have much depth there, and he came here. He’s been an outstanding member of our team. Very mature kid, works hard, knowledgeable, good thrower and can run. I think if you asked his teammates about him, they’d say he’s been a great addition to the program.”
Sophomore receiver Ketron Jackson called Fortin a confident player.
“I’m very confident in him,” Jackson said. “We’re on the same page. We’ve got our timing in the offseason, so I feel great about the timing part of that. I feel like he’s a great quarterback. He’s very calm in the pocket. He’s going to be great for us Saturday.”
Center Ricky Stromberg has snapped to both Hornsby and Fortin in game situations and likes them both.
“They’re both great QBs,” Stromberg said. “It doesn’t matter who’s behind me, who I’m snapping to, because I’ve got great confidence in them.
“We have three really good QBs, including KJ obviously. So no, I have no concern with them at all. I’m excited to have either one of them behind me. As an offense, we’re confident in them.”
Hornsby’s most extensive action came in last year’s 20-10 upset of No. 7 Texas A&M when he played 20 consecutive snaps while Jefferson was treated for a knee injury. Hornsby led a critical field goal drive after an Arkansas interception near midfield early in the fourth quarter. He has five touches this season as a wideout and motion man for 29 yards, prompting Pittman to say on Monday that Hornsby hasn’t gotten the amount of work he would have imagined.
Whoever plays quarterback will have to be on the same page with the line’s protection schemes and blitz awareness with the skill players because Mississippi State aggressively attacks gaps and the backfield in an effort to stop the run and pressure the passer.
“Mississippi State pressures, to me, to get you behind the sticks in the run,” Pittman said. “Then that just continues whenever you get in third down.
“They’re the most ‘come at you’ team I’ve seen in a long time. From a lot of different angles, from the middle, boundary, from the field. But I think they’re a run-pressure team is what I think. And they’ve had really good success with it.”
Stromberg acknowledged the importance of pre-snap reads and calls.
“It’s communication and being able to communicate our thoughts,” he said. “They’ve got a tricky defense. But we’ve seen it the past two years, so it’s nothing new to us.
“But we’ve been emphasizing in practice our communication through the noise to be able to pick up those blitzes and point those spots out.”
Understanding where pressure is coming and hot-route reads will be essential.
“We’ve got to get the ball out of our hands fast, because they’re sending blitzes,” Jackson said. “I feel like Coach has put in a great plan for it.
“But, we’ve got to be ready for it. We can’t have mistakes and have our quarterback getting sacked. So we’ve been working that in practice and it’s a great game plan.”
Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson is questionable with a head injury for Saturday’s game at Mississippi State. A look at the career numbers for the quarterbacks in the mix this week.
Games Started/Played: 20/26
Passing: 312 of 487 (64.1%) for 4,264 yards, 33 TD, 6 INT
Rushing: 285 for 1,101 yards (3.9 avg.), 14 TD
Games Started/Played: 4/12
Passing: 65 of 131 (49.6%) for 645 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT
Rushing: 28 for 161 yards (5.8 avg.), 1 TD
Games Started/Played: 0/11
Passing: 5 of 12 (41.7%) for 46 yards, 0 TD, 0 INT
Rushing: 29 for 156 yards (5.4 avg.), 1 TD
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