By Otis Kirk
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ offense under Kendal Briles should be a good one this fall with KJ Jefferson returning to man the quarterback position.
Jefferson helped lead the Hogs to a 9-4 mark in 2021 and also topped the Arkansas rushing charts. Jefferson completed 198 of 294 passes for 2,676 yards, 21 touchdowns and four interceptions. On the ground Jefferson rushed 146 times for 664 yards and six touchdowns. Briles talked about the kind of season Jefferson could follow up 2021 with this fall.
“Time will tell, you know?,” Briles said. “Time will tell. It all matters with the passing game with how we’re running the ball and how we’re protecting. There’s so many variables. How they’re playing us. If they’re playing us off, we’re going to run the football. So, there’s so many variables that you can look at and say ‘heck, he only threw for 150 yards.’ Bottom line is he is a winner. We know he’s a winner. When you’re a quarterback, to be a great quarterback, you have to win football games. I believe in him, and I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in American when it comes to winning football games. However we’ve got to do it, we’ve got to do it.”
The efficiency rankings for Arkansas’ quarterbacks also sees Jefferson at the top of that chart as one would suspect.
“Right now, KJ is leading that group, Cade Fortin is right behind him and Malik Hornsby is behind him,” Briles said. “Obviously, KJ is working with a little bit higher caliber of player and O-line. But he’s also playing against it too. There’s DB’s and guys that are making plays. So, I’m pleased with where they’re at. We’ve been practicing against this defense. I was talking to Kyle on the way over here. We’ve been practicing against these guys for a long time it seems like. So, we’re ready to get on and start getting ready for Cincinnati.”
Jefferson talked about the efficiency of the offense so far this preseason with the opening game just over two week’s away.
“It’s been up and down, here and there,” Jefferson said. “But so far everybody’s been good. We’ve been on the rise. We’ve just got to clean up those small details. We can’t hurt ourselves. We know in this league we can’t get behind the chains. Trying to stay ahead of the chains in certain scenarios and situations that Coach (Sam) Pittman puts us in. Stay out of third-and-long on those types of scenarios.”
Briles also talked about how he feels Jefferson has improved his accuracy.
“I think his footwork,” Briles said. “His footwork has been key for all of that. There were times last year, I’m sure, that everybody sees it, there were times when he was stagnant in the pocket, standing straight up. His footwork has been really, really good. That’s been a point of emphasis for us, and he’s done a tremendous job with that. We’re very pleased with that and it’s helping his accuracy.”
Fortin transferred in from South Florida. Briles talked about Fortin’s completion percentage second to only Jefferson on the team.
“He’s really accurate,” Briles said. “He’s a smart kid. He knows exactly what’s happening on defense, where the ball needs to go, and he does it in a fast way. He gets the ball out of his hands. A lot of times pressure can get to you, and it doesn’t really get to him because he knows exactly where the ball should go, and he’s accurate when he’s doing it. It’s been great to be able to watch him work and develop in this offense.”
Is Fortin pushing Hornsby for the backup job?
“Yeah, he’s done a really good job,” Briles said. “Both those guys, I feel like, we definitely trust on the field. And they’re both a little different. Cade can move around a little bit, but he’s a guy that can get back there and deal the ball. And then obviously with Malik and his speed and what he does to the defense with plus-one game and still being able to throw the football down the field, we feel really good about both those guys if they’re called upon.”
Regardless of who plays behind him, Jefferson likes what all the quarterbacks bring to the team.
“I love my quarterback room,” Jefferson said. “Those guys right there, we all learn from each other. We feed off each other’s energy. We talk about, each and every day in that room, just body language. Every time you take the field, everybody’s watching you. All eyes on you. So being able to have positive body language is very contagious to the team. Being able to just have room like that, everybody feeding off each other, everybody learning from each other just creates a good environment.”
Briles also was asked if he is fine with Jefferson leading the team in rushing?
“I’m totally cool winning football games,” Briles said. “I’m not a stats guy. Stats are good because people lie and numbers don’t, but I like winning. However we’ve got to win, I don’t care. If the defense scores two safeties and we win 4-0, we won. It’s all about winning football games. Now it’s not going to be happy and we’re not going to be excited about it, but it’s all about winning games. I don’t care how we do it.”
No position on the offense, maybe entire team, has improved more since the spring than the wide receivers. One of the key wide receivers is Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood. At OU last season, Haselwood topped the team with 39 receptions and six touchdown catches. However his receptions only went for 399 yards. Some wondered about his ability to get deep, but Jefferson knows what Haselwood can do in that regard.
“Haselwood, he can get down the field,” Jefferson said. “He’s a great feed the ball guy. You give him a chance, he’s going to go make a play. Being able to use him in certain situations where he can stretch the ball down the field and just being able to give him a good, catchable ball. A 50-50 ball, knowing he’s going to go up and make a play. He will stretch the field vertical for us.”
As a redshirt junior, Jefferson has stepped up his leadership role on this year’s team.
“Just being more vocal,” Jefferson said. “When things aren’t going right, being able to just call the whole offense up and set it straight right then and there instead of waiting and letting it kind of dwell and keep building into a bigger problem. So just stopping it right then and there and being more vocal.”
One thing Jefferson has done so well as the starting quarterback at Arkansas is protect the football.
“Just discipline,” Jefferson said. “I take pride in protecting the ball and making sure I put my team in the best position to win. Once I threw the third interception of the season, I told everybody straight up I’m not throwing any more interceptions, I’m going to take care of the ball. Because I feel like if I throw interceptions, I’m hurting my team, I’m hurting myself and I’m not putting my team in the best position to win. So being able to just have a mindset like that, a mentality like that going into each and every week knowing that I’m going to take care of the ball, I’m not going to turn the ball over. It’s just an advantage and it gains confidence around each and everybody in the room.”
While Briles is very happy to have Jefferson as his quarterback the feeling is mutual.
“Looking up to a guy like Coach Briles, the type of man he is,” Jefferson said. “Not even just the coach, but the type of man he is and the way he interacts with us and his family, his kids, I just want to model myself after that. Seeing how he just goes about his business each and every day as a professional, I just want to model myself after that.”
Arkansas will hold a scrimmage on Saturday.