Ready or not, it is almost time for Arkansas football once again — kind of. Spring ball is set to begin March 9, which marks the unofficial start to Year 4 of the Sam Pittman era.
To help get you acquainted with the 2023 squad, Best of Arkansas Sports will preview the team position-by-position. We’ll take a look at the biggest questions, key players and newcomers that will define the Razorbacks’ upcoming season.
Our series begins with a deep dive on the quarterbacks…
Biggest Question Facing Arkansas Football at QB
How will going from Kendal Briles to Dan Enos impact KJ Jefferson?
For a while, it seemed like Kendal Briles would be back for a fourth season with Arkansas football. He even posted on Twitter that he was “looking forward to 2023” with KJ Jefferson after briefly flirting with Mississippi State. A few days later, though, the TCU offensive coordinator job came open and he ditched the Razorbacks to return to his home state.
The move may have surprised the public, but it didn’t seem like Sam Pittman was caught off guard. He moved quickly to replace him, with Arkansas announcing the return of Dan Enos before the Horned Frogs had a chance to announce their hire of Briles.
Bringing back Enos, who was previously the offensive coordinator at Arkansas under Bret Bielema from 2015-17, was met with mixed reviews, but what’s undeniable is the fact that his offense will look different than the past three years.
Enos runs more of a pro-style system, so a pessimistic way to look at it is Jefferson doesn’t fit what he likes to do and it will be like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole. After all, he is nothing like the Allen brothers, who ran his system during his first stint.
However, it has been six years since he was last in Fayetteville and he’s picked up some RPO stuff in his last few stops. In fact, Enos said Jefferson reminded him a little bit of Jalen Hurts — whom he coached while at Alabama in 2018 and just led the Eagles to the Super Bowl.
“The great thing about this game is it’s constantly evolving, and you can either adapt and evolve with it or you’ll find yourself on the outside looking in at times,” Enos said earlier this month. “So through my career, I’ve always tried to at least stay on the cutting edge of what people are doing and learning new things.”
Another optimistic way to look at the change is that Brandon Allen, in just one season under Enos, drastically improved as a passer. If there’s one area Jefferson could stand to improve, it’s working through his progressions and hitting the short to intermediate passes. If he improves as much as Allen did, Jefferson could easily become a coveted NFL Draft prospect.
The Star: KJ Jefferson
Even though there are ways he could improve as a fifth-year senior, KJ Jefferson is the unquestioned leader of the Razorbacks. He was voted a team captain each of the last two seasons and will likely earn that honor for a third time in 2023.
Simply put, Arkansas is a better football team when the Sardis, Miss., native is healthy and on the field. He missed two games entirely and played in a third when he was clearly not 100% last season and the Razorbacks lost all three. Take out those games and they would have set single-season school records for scoring (37.7 ppg) and total offense (496.8 ypg).
As long as he stays healthy next season, there’s a very good chance Jefferson will break every major UA passing record. He needs only 1,950 passing yards and 17 touchdowns to top marks set by Tyler Wilson and Brandon Allen, respectively. Those numbers would also help him shatter Matt Jones’ records for total yards and total touchdowns.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jefferson is one of the top 10 returning quarterbacks in all of college football.
Newcomer to Watch: Jacolby Criswell
Unfortunately for the Razorbacks, KJ Jefferson’s style is not the best when it comes to staying healthy. He is a big, physical quarterback who doesn’t shy away from contact. He did appear to make a concerted effort to avoid unnecessary hits in the Liberty Bowl, so maybe that’s an encouraging sign moving forward, but you can’t ignore the possibility of him getting hurt again.
Last year, there was only one other scholarship quarterback on the roster, but to the surprise of no one, Malik Hornsby was the first player to announce his intention to transfer following the regular season. Of course, he and fellow backup Cade Fortin didn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence.
The pair combined to complete just 27 of 56 passes (48.2%) for 403 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. That is just 7.2 yards per attempt — a number inflated by their two long touchdown passes. Take out those two plays and their other 54 attempts averaged only 5.5 yards.
Needless to say, finding a better backup quarterback was a crucial task for Sam Pittman this offseason and he found the perfect guy in Jacolby Criswell. A former four-star recruit, Criswell is from Morrilton and probably wanted to play for the Razorbacks out of high school, but Chad Morris didn’t recruit him and Pittman didn’t have enough time to flip him.
After three years at North Carolina, where he lost quarterback battles with Sam Howell and Drake Maye, Criswell returned home and seems to be the prime candidate to serve as Jefferson’s backup. If he’s thrust into action, the hope is that he’ll be better suited for the SEC than Hornsby or Fortin.
Arkansas Football 2023 Projected Depth Chart
1. KJ Jefferson — redshirt senior
2. Jacolby Criswell — redshirt junior
3. Cade Fortin — sixth-year super senior
4. Malachi Singleton — freshman
5. *Kade Renfro — redshirt junior
6. *Rykar Acebo — redshirt freshman
The Razorbacks won’t even pretend that there’s a quarterback battle this offseason because KJ Jefferson is the unquestioned No. 1 guy.
There will likely be a battle for the backup position, though. Cade Fortin — now on scholarship — will probably start out with the second-team offense because he was here last season and Sam Pittman typically likes to have transfers and freshmen earn their spot.
However, as laid out above, we project Jacolby Criswell to eventually take over the No. 2 spot on the depth chart. Then the question becomes how much Malachi Singleton will play as a true freshman.
With more depth at the position than last year, he will almost certainly maintain his redshirt by appearing in four or fewer regular-season games. That is why we have Fortin slotted ahead of him, even though he may be the more talented of the two.
Walk-ons Kade Renfro and Rykar Acebo are still on the team, as well. Renfro is coming back from a second torn ACL suffered early in the 2022 season, as he re-injured the same knee he hurt during bowl practices leading up to the Outback Bowl. He was originally a scholarship signee at Ole Miss before transferring to Arkansas as a walk-on. Acebo is a Jonesboro native who will be in his second year with the program.
Check out highlights of KJ Jefferson:
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