Photo: Arkansas Razorback Football
Sophomore and leadership aren’t two words that naturally go together.
It’s not that they are oil and water necessarily, but generally team leaders are older heads, you know, fourth-year juniors, fifth-year seniors.
K.J. Jefferson (6-4, 240) is a third-year sophomore, but he has shown the type of growth and leadership that has engendered confidence in his teammates and coaches.
The responsibilities of the starting quarterback job, the notoriety of the position, just having the ball in your hands that much is not lost on Jefferson.
If a burgeoning fan only knows the name of one player on a team, it is usually the quarterback. Everyone who buys a ticket, watches the game from home, or listens from the radio has an opinion or a critique concerning quarterback play.
Playing quarterback is anything but a thankless task, but with the glory comes the responsibility.
Jefferson knows he will be under the microscope. He understands that the quarterback bears the burden not only for his own mistakes but sometimes for those of his teammates. His every move will be in the spotlight on and off the field, and every mistake is the focus of every set of eyes that focus on the game.
The position is tough for a veteran to play. It’s absolutely brutal on even the most talented underclassmen.
There is no one position in all of team sports more critical. A great quarterback can lift up mediocre talent and make his unit competitive. Conversely poor quarterback play can sink even the most talented squad.
That is the daunting task that faces Jefferson going into the Razorbacks’ oncoming season. Based on his performance in the spring, Jefferson will be the Hogs’ starter this fall, barring injury.
Jefferson has played understudy for two seasons behind a gaggle of quarterbacks as a freshman and last year behind grad-transfer Feleipe Franks, who transferred in from Florida to craft the most accurate passing effort ever by a Razorback quarterback at 68.5 percent despite the Hogs’ 3-7 record.
No doubt observing Franks do his business for the Hogs was an asset to Jefferson as well as being coached by Arkansas offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Kendal Briles, who has a reputation for guiding successful offenses at Baylor, Florida Atlantic, Houston and Florida State before landing in Fayetteville.
While Franks did an excellent job for a Razorback coaching staff in its first year on the job, his ankle injury at Florida did not make him the perfect fit for Briles’ offense. Jefferson, who is a powerful runner and an improving passer has the skill-set to run Briles’ run-pass option offense the way it is intended.
While the 6-3, 240-pound third-year sophomore has an array of impressive physical skills, perhaps the most telling attribute about the young man from Sardis, Miss., is the leadership that’s been on display since the beginning of this year.
In a zoom interview this spring, Razorback junior defensive back Greg Brooks made it clear that Jefferson had taken on a leadership role with the Hogs.
“Ever since January and we came back and went to workouts, he’s been leading the team each and every day,” Brooks said. “Like controlling it. You can tell it’s his team. So he’s going to lead us in the right direction.”
That’s a strong testimony from a teammate who plays on the other side of the football.
And it’s not just Brooks. Jefferson has won over his teammates who have watched him pay his dues as a back-up for two seasons.
Junior wide receiver and All-SEC candidate Treylon Burks is a believer in Jackson.
“Me and KJ, it feels like we grew up with each other,” Burks said last fall in a Zoom interview after Jefferson completed 18 of 33 passes for 274 yards and three touchdowns in a heartbreaking 50-48 loss to Missouri that was the quarterback’s lone start of the season. “We were roommates last year, and we always talked about this. That connection with each other. Just the way that we prepare — the wide receiver group prepares with the quarterback group — each day, there were times in practice where he threw the same ball and he just connected perfect. It really wasn’t a surprise.”
Burks said he was impressed with his friend’s composure and leadership even before the spring.
“KJ, he practices like a champ,” Burks said. “And it really wasn’t a surprise. He prepares every day like he’s fixing to start every game each week. It’s just the way he carries himself. And really like our whole team carries ourselves.”
Jefferson threw to Burks 15 times against Missouri with the receiver making 10 receptions for 206 yards and a touchdown. Burks feels the maturation process for Jefferson allowed him to post such an outstanding performance in his lone start of 2020.
“I would say just the way he studies the playbook,” Burks said. “He’s gotten in the playbook a lot more this year. You can tell that he wants it. Obviously, he wanted it last year, but it’s just a maturity each year where everybody gets better. That’s one place where I’ve seen him get better at.”
All-SEC safety candidate Jalen Catalon has been equally impressed with Jefferson’s leadership.
“I’ve seen KJ from the very get go watch film and just looked up to Feleipe and make sure he was connected to him and kind of watching,” Catalon said in a Zoom interview last fall. “When it was time to go in, he did his thing and I was proud of him, and I think he showed that he’s a top quarterback in the country and can lead this team in the years to come. But I was just excited to see him get his opportunity and make the most of it. He just utilized his opportunity. I was proud of him and I knew the work he put in to get to that moment. He played a great game.”
Jefferson’s play showed incredible growth from his first start as a freshman against LSU, after Chad Morris had been fired and with Barry Lunney Jr. serving as head coach in 2019.
Against the eventual national champions, Jefferson completed 7 of 14 passes for 105 yards and rushed 12 times for 27 yards in the 56-20 loss, but went down with an injury and did not play in the Hogs’ final game against Missouri.
Going into spring practices, Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman expressed confidence in the sophomore in a Zoom teleconference.
“As far as what I envision with Kendal’s offense — and I’ve watched it on tape before he was hired — I think who we have at quarterback right now is probably tailored to his offense a little bit more even than what Feleipe was,” Pittman said.
Jefferson said in a Zoom interview session last spring that he felt well equipped to take over the Hogs’ starting role.
“I mean, coming in, I knew after Feleipe left, I knew I was the next guy in charge, so at the winter workouts I just had to come in with the mindset that it was my team and I had to take over the team from day one,” Jefferson said. “Keep that confidence and leadership, and consistency also, all the way up.”
Pittman likes the confidence Jefferson showed in spring practice, and the trust his teammates have in him.
“The team believes in him,” Pittman said. “Heck, I believe in him. He’s done a nice job. Again, his work ethic has been leadership in itself, and he’s becoming more vocal. He’s as vocal as he needs to be, to be honest with you, and I’ll tell you this: Feleipe, he wasn’t a very vocal guy either, but his work ethic was, and that’s the same way with K.J.”
Working behind Jefferson is Missouri City, Texas, redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby (6-2, 190). Hornsby is an exceptional athlete with a promising future with the Hogs. He’s agile and quick with a good throwing motion.
John Stephen Jones (5-11, 204) is back for his junior season. He and Kade Renfro (6-3, 208), a redshirt freshman who transferred in from Ole Miss will likely vie for the third-string role. True freshman Lucas Coley (6-4, 215) of San Antonio will likely redshirt this year.
* This is the third in a position-by-position series previewing the 2021 Arkansas football team.