Mike Irwin, like the rest of the Arkansas sports media, didn’t get a chance to see redshirt freshman K.J. Jefferson up close and personal in practice this fall.
Aside from a few brief appearances in games this season, the Pig Trail Nation analyst couldn’t assess how Jefferson had progressed from a true freshman season that delivered a few bright spots but mostly underwhelmed relative to the hype Jefferson had generated as a record-shattering high school quarterback in Mississippi.
With Sam Pittman closing down practices at the start of this season, the last time Irwin and other media saw Jefferson take meaningful game snaps was in 2019, when Arkansas went down in flames in a 36-point loss to then No. 1 LSU. Jefferson completed just half of his passes for 105 yards.
So Irwin, like so many other onlookers, assumed Jefferson hadn’t improved enough since then to take the reins going into 2021. He believed this coming offseason Arkansas coaches would need to snag a graduate transfer quarterback to take the place of Feleipe Franks in 2021 (assuming Franks enters the 2021 NFL Draft).
Irwin thought wrong.
Jefferson’s eye-opening performance in Arkansas’ close loss to Missouri, in which he threw for a career-high 274 yards and accounted for four touchdowns, solidified his status as frontrunner for the Razorbacks’ quarterback spot next season.
In Missouri, he excelled in place of the unexpectedly sidelined Franks. In a recent episode of “Ask Mike,” Irwin said he didn’t see that coming. “It sure looks like I was as wrong as I could be.” He adds: “Except for brief appearances this season I had not seen anything from Jefferson since the preseason. He didn’t look much different to me from last season. But give him credit for getting himself prepared to play and [Kendal] Briles for doing a great job of developing him.”
Against the SEC’s top pass defense, Jefferson led Arkansas to a season-high in yards and points. The Hogs suffered less lost yardage plays and played more efficiently against the Tigers.
“Franks was getting sacked at the highest rate of any SEC quarterback, but it looked like the Hogs called fewer RPOs that required Jefferson to eat the ball if the throw wasn’t there,” as Adam Ford points out. “I think that played a role, as the Hogs had their fewest number of broken plays all season despite a new quarterback”
Jefferson threw 18 accurate passes versus six inaccurate passes (one more than Franks’ season high), according to WholeHogSports.com’s Scottie Bordelon. He was especially accurate late in the game, when he completed five of his last six passes and put Arkansas ahead with 43 seconds left.
Granted, Arkansas benefited from the element of surprise. Missouri didn’t plan to face Jefferson, but they still had a whole game to adjust to the new quarterback. That the 19-year-old still played so well at the end of regulation should give a lot of Razorback fans hope for the future.
Still, as Irwin says, “we have not seen how he will perform against a team that has a week to get ready for what he does.”
That may change on Saturday, when Arkansas takes on the man-eating juggernaut that is No. 1 Alabama. The Crimson Tide, allowing only 8.25 points a game in their last four outings, will enter Fayetteville as 31.5-point favorites according to the latest odds.
If Franks has healed from an apparent rib injury, he will likely start. But if not, or he wants to sit out to avoid potential injury heading into the draft, expect Jefferson to get the nod. Regardless, the Hogs will play this decision close to the vest and force Alabama to prepare for either quarterback.
The question of who starts isn’t as important as what level of production Arkansas will get from the quarterback position behind a rapidly improving offensive line. No matter who gets the lion’s share of minutes, Arkansas will need another career performance from behind center to have a sliver of hope against the powerful Crimson Tide.
Will Jefferson lead Arkansas to a bowl game? Which one? I dive into those details and more in my latest post: “LSU’s Crappy Bowl Ban Is a Boon for Razorbacks”