FAYETTEVILLE — Redshirt sophomore KJ Jefferson continues to work and improve as it appears he will be the starting quarterback when Arkansas takes the field against Rice on Saturday, Sept. 4.
During the spring game on Saturday, Jefferson completed 6 of 11 passes for 153 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed four times for 16 yards. It’s obvious Jefferson has improved his accuracy during his time at Arkansas.
“I attribute it to what we do with Coach (Kendal) Briles mechanics wise, quick releases,” Jefferson said. “Doing the target. Trying to hit the target every time, rolling out. Focusing on the small, mechanical stuff that can be fixed easily.”
This spring, Jefferson and the other quarterbacks wore black protective jerseys that prevented them from getting hit. In the fall, Jefferson will be able to run against defenses thus adding another key dimension to Arkansas’ offense.
“With all the equipment we can make moves with our designed runs,” Jefferson said. “I feel that once we get into the season and start coming at the defense with designed runs when they load the box it’s good for us on the offense. We can go over the top when they bring the safety into the box or when they’re in man get matched up with the outside receiver and make plays.”
Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman had an interesting thought on Jefferson’s situation not being able to show what he can do in the running game this spring.
“I thought KJ couldn’t have had a better start,” Pittman said. “He did some really nice things. I think he’s certainly maturing. He’s got command of this team. His teammates believe in him. That’s hard. You have to earn that at quarterback and he certainly has. I just think that when we’re able to run him he’s going to become a very, very, very good quarterback for us. Right now, obviously with tagging off, you’re not calling any type of quarterback runs because they’re not going to give them many yards. If you block it off good and get tagged, it’s down. Once we’re able to use everything, I do believe because of that situation he became a better thrower this spring.”
There’s no doubt in Jefferson’s mind that Jefferson made great improvement in the spring.
“Well, I really do,” Pittman said. “I’d have to go look back at every throw that he made, but I can tell you this, when I was standing out on the field, I was going, ‘It’d be hard not to like this kid at quarterback,’ because he’s big, he’s strong, he’s commanding and he was on point. I don’t know every single throw that he made, but I know as a head coach, I was sitting back there going, ‘I’m damn glad he’s our quarterback.’”
Jefferson talked about what it means to him that Pittman would say something like that as well as praise and confidence in his ability from his teammates.
“Just confidence,” Jefferson said. “Basically, I build off the confidence and trust in my teammates. Each and every day I try to at least grab one O-lineman and I work with him. Just so I can trust him, and he can trust me and just keep doing that throughout with all my teammates. It might be anything. Just taking them out. Laughing, joking, playing. Just building a bond so when we get out on the field, I know I’ve got their back and they’ve got mine.”
Talented safety Jalen Catalon is someone who goes against Jefferson and the offense each practice. Count him as impressed as well.
“Definitely throwing, his mechanics, velocity, everything on his ball,” Catalon said. “You can tell he’s been focusing on it for sure. I think his maturity, he’s come in and gotten a lot more mature as time went on. You saw him grow up fast. I think he realized the situation he was in, he was going to have to lead this offense. He’s done a really outstanding job of that, and he definitely has the whole team on board. Hat’s off to him for taking that role and filling in the shoes, he’s filling Feleipe Franks’ shoes and he’s done a really good job, and everybody feeds off of that.”
Catalon agrees that Jefferson is someone the entire team can get behind.
“Most definitely,” Catalon said. “He has those instincts for sure. He has those tangibles. He shows that every single day with the way he approaches it. He always talks to us right before practice starts, 90 percent of the time when we’re out in the stretch lines, and his message is always powerful. He definitely leads this team, and the sky is the limit for him. He’s in control of all of that, but I’ll definitely ride with him as far as being our quarterback, for sure.”
Jefferson is coming off a season when he played in five games. He completed 20 of 41 passes for 295 yards and three touchdowns. He also rushed 28 times for 67 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He also feels he improved this spring.
“My confidence level is pretty high,” Jefferson said. “Starting off I wasn’t recognizing defenses and different coverages and stuff but coming out of spring I felt I grew and matured a whole lot from where I started spring.”
One concern when a team has a dual-threat quarterback though is the obvious worry of an injury. Thus the reason that Pittman feels it’s important for Malik Hornsby, John Stephen Jones, Lucas Coley, Kade Renfro and then Landon Rogers continue to develop.
“First of all, KJ’s smart,” Pittman said. “I get what you’re saying, but I don’t think he’s going to take direct hits. I think he’s smart. He knows how to get down. He knows how to slip off tacklers. But you’re 100 percent correct, that you can’t run this offense the way we want to run it with one quarterback. You can’t do it.
“Hopefully whomever your starter is stays healthy the entire year, but at the same time, you have to be willing to run the offense. If that’s the case, your No. 2 better be ready to roll just like KJ was last year when Feleipe got beat up a little bit. I’m becoming a believer of Malik Hornsby more and more each time he goes out there. So you got him and of course you have a battle there between John Stephen and Coley and Renfro.”
Jefferson knows it will be important for him stay healthy best he can in the fall.
“Basically, our offense is RPO run,” Jefferson said. “Coach Briles is a firm believer in keeping the quarterback healthy. He doesn’t want us taking any unnecessary shots. Like Coach Pittman said, every quarterback in the room is smart enough to know when to get down and when you have space to work. Just being smart basically and how the offense is ran. Basically, RPO style, fast-tempo. Just knowing when and when not to do certain stuff just to remain healthy throughout the season.”
Jefferson is taking over an offense that returns all the starters from 2020 with the exception of Franks, who he’s replacing.
“It means a lot,” Jefferson said. “Since we have a lot of weapons coming back, we have a point to prove on offense. We just want to be the best we can be.”
Jefferson has two starts under his belt at Arkansas, but both were on the road. He started at LSU in 2019 and Missouri in 2020. That is likely to change in September when the Hogs start the season off with three consecutive games in Fayetteville including a big game against Texas on Sept. 11.