Arkansas football puts faith in leadership of quarterback KJ Jefferson

FAYETTEVILLE – At halftime of Arkansas football’s 2021 season opener against Rice, the Razorbacks found themselves down three points at halftime. Their lone score of the first half had come when newly minted starting quarterback KJ Jefferson ran for a 34-yard score on Arkansas’ second drive.

Playing from behind against a mid-major opponent wasn’t how coach Sam Pittman wanted to start his second season, nor Jefferson his first. At the half, Pittman had a message for Jefferson.

“He pulled me to the side and said that at some point, I was going to have to be able to make a play and rally the team together,” Jefferson told the Southwest Times Record. “That was the only way we could come out victorious.”

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Jefferson led five scoring drives in the second half, and the Razorbacks beat the Owls 38-17. It was the start of a 9-4 season that was Arkansas’ best in years and saw Jefferson lead the Razorbacks in rushing yards. But it was in that second half of the first game of the year that Pittman saw his starting quarterback change.

“That’s kind of when he took the team over,” Pittman said. “He’s got a mentality of physicality about him, a little bit to a fault when he gets in the open field. … In games, he’s a big part of that tough part of our football team.”

In retrospect, Pittman acknowledges he didn’t know then what he had in Jefferson. The run-up to the 2022 season has been a different story. Jefferson begins his second year as starter on Saturday (2:30 pm CT, ESPN) against No. 22 Cincinnati at Razorback Stadium. He’s had the first second-year starter offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, and he’ll be behind a veteran offensive line. But the Razorbacks’ offense isn’t without questions.

Star receiver Treylon Burks is gone after being selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. Arkansas’ offense will be different without him, but the question is whether it will be worse. What will Jefferson look like as a passer without one of the league’s top receivers on the other end of his throws?

Despite being the league’s third-leading passer last season, Jefferson was left off multiple preseason All-SEC teams in part because of that uncertainty. But the doubt hasn’t cracked Jefferson’s mild-mannered personality. He’s approaching the season the same way he always has: With an attitude of humility befitting the brand Arkansas football has built.

Jefferson’s mother, Katorie Wilson-Moore, is proud of the approach her son takes. He’s confident but doesn’t boast, she said. He’s not going to tell you how good he is. He’s going to show you.

“That’s basically what I’ve told him ever since he became the starting quarterback,” Wilson-Moore said. “Ever since then, I’ve told him, ‘Let what you do speak for you. You don’t have to open your mouth because they’re going to know KJ Jefferson by your actions, by what you do and how you do it.”

It’s the same approach he takes to leadership. He’s not shy, but he’s never one to shout down a teammate or make some epic halftime speech.

His style is to simply be present and be heard. It’s advice he’s gotten from leaders he admires, including Arkansas strength and condition coach Jamil Walker.

“Just talk more throughout practice so people get used to hearing your voice,” Jefferson said. “When adversity does come or a crunch-time situation does come and you speak, everybody knows it’s coming directly from you. Everybody’s not shocked or surprised or caught off guard by hearing your voice.”

Teammates and coaches have said all offseason that Jefferson has made strides in his accuracy, his reads, and even shed some weight. Improving as a quarterback is key to proving that Burks wasn’t all that made Jefferson a success. But most of all, those around him have said Jefferson has become the kind of vocal leader who’s talking through plays. What’s going right? What’s going wrong?

Jefferson will bring the same physicality and run ability to the Arkansas offense that he did a season ago. As Cincinnati coach Luke Fickell put it, “He’s not just a dual-threat guy to run, he’s a dual-threat guy to run you over.”

What remains to be seen is how the Razorbacks put together their passing game and compete against one of the nation’s toughest schedules. One thing Jefferson showed back in that first game as starter, though? He can find a way.

“Bottom line is, he is a winner,” Briles said. “To be a great quarterback, you have to win football games. I believe in him, and I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in America when it comes to winning football games.”

Christina Long covers the Arkansas Razorbacks for the Southwest Times Record and USA Today Network. You can follow her on Twitter @christinalong00 or email her at [email protected].

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