Blindfold Needed for Some Fans to See KJ Jefferson for What He Really Was

Ryan Mallett, KJ Jefferson, Tyler Wilson, Arkansas football
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

A fan base turning on a player who enters the transfer portal is not a phenomenon unique to Arkansas, so the wide-ranging reaction to KJ Jefferson leaving the program isn’t that surprising.

Just as it was with Rocket Sanders deciding to finish his career at South Carolina, perspective is needed to truly appreciate what Jefferson did for the Razorbacks. Unfortunately, that’s not something fans generally possess, especially in the immediate aftermath of such a move.

Even with a disappointing 2023 season, KJ Jefferson is one of the best quarterbacks in Arkansas football history.

WAIT! Before you slam your phone down or angrily close the tab on your computer, read that sentence again — slowly this time. KJ Jefferson is *one of* the best quarterbacks in Arkansas football history.

Is he the greatest? Transferring out probably disqualifies him from the Mount Rushmore of Arkansas quarterbacks, too.

However, Jefferson undoubtedly belongs in the same conversation as the likes of Ryan Mallett, Tyler Wilson, Brandon Allen, Matt Jones, Clint Stoerner and, for the pre-SEC folks, Quinn Grovey, Joe Ferguson and Bill Montgomery.

In fact, he’s probably better than several of those quarterbacks. The disaster that was this past season and his decision to use his sixth year of college football elsewhere doesn’t change that.

After all, Jefferson has a degree from the University of Arkansas, which has to count for something, and is able to play in 2024 only because of the eligibility relief granted by the NCAA. Had the global pandemic not happened, he’d be done and would have ended his career with the Razorbacks.

Using a Blind Resume

One of the best ways to avoid preconceived notions or bias when comparing quarterbacks is to strip away their identities and put their numbers side-by-side. This isn’t perfect, of course, because stats don’t tell the whole story, but it can be eye-opening.

Take this Twitter poll, for example. When given only statistics of two quarterbacks and asked to pick one, an overwhelming majority — 82% — of more than 1,600 respondents chose the first one.

That first set of numbers just so happened to be from KJ Jefferson’s first two years as a starter, 2021 and 2022. The second quarterback was the late Ryan Mallett, who played two seasons for the Razorbacks from 2009-10.

Had their names simply been listed, it would have been an even more lopsided poll, but in favor of Mallett — and rightfully so. Mallett, who tragically died this summer, is probably who most fans would label as the greatest Arkansas quarterback of all-time.

The exercise wasn’t meant to make a case for Jefferson over Mallett, but rather illustrate just how good Jefferson was in that two-year stretch and prove he belongs in that conversation.

There was a reason he was discussed as a Heisman Trophy dark horse entering the 2023 season. Longevity isn’t why he now holds so many career records.

He was a great quarterback who was even better in 2022, but was limited by injuries and what was statistically the worst defense – in terms of yards allowed per game – in school history. He was not the reason Arkansas lost in those two years. (Even after his disastrous Superman leap attempt against Texas A&M in 2021, Jefferson got the Razorbacks in position for a game-winning field goal in the closing seconds.)

Just look at the numbers he put up in those eight losses compared to Mallett’s stats from his eight losses:

QuarterbackPassing StatsRushing StatsTotal Offense
Ryan Mallett133 of 274 (48.5%), 2,003 yards, 13 TD, 6 INT37 carries, -86 yards, 1 TD1,917 yards, 14 TD
KJ Jefferson144 of 220 (65.5%), 1,755 yards, 15 TD, 4 INT129 carries, 395 yards, 5 TD2,150 yards, 20 TD

Again, this isn’t trying to prove Jefferson is better than Mallett, but rather just that Jefferson was a much better quarterback than some fans give him credit for.

Don’t want to listen to some sportswriter? Take it from a former Razorback who played the game at a high level:

KJ Jefferson at Arkansas in 2023

The counterargument to the above point is that it doesn’t include what KJ Jefferson did this past season, which is more than valid.

As much as fans would probably like to forget it, the 2023 season did happen and Jefferson was the starting quarterback for all 12 games of the 4-8 campaign.

However, once again, context is important.

Jefferson was the perfect fit for former offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ system. They seemed to have a special connection. Look no further than Briles’ original tweet announcing his return in 2023, turning down the Mississippi State job, which included a photo of the two together.

Unfortunately for the Razorbacks and Jefferson, Briles ended up still leaving to take the TCU job. He was replaced by Dan Enos, who installed a completely different system.

We don’t need to rehash all of the gory details, but it was such a bad fit that Enos was fired after only eight games. Not only did the new system struggled to move the ball and put up points, but the offensive line was virtually nonexistent and Jefferson found himself running for his life much of the season.

Despite all of that, he still managed to complete 64.2% of his passes for 2,107 yards, 19 touchdowns and eight interceptions, while adding 447 yards and two more scores on the ground.

Those aren’t bad numbers by any stretch of the imagination, but they ring hollow because of Arkansas’ 4-8 record.

(Spare me the claims about Jefferson quitting on the team this year. If that was the case, why would he have risked his health playing behind that offensive line? Why would he have tried to come back in the Missouri game instead of just heading to the locker room and taking a shower?)

That record is something fans have a hard time looking past when assessing Jefferson’s legacy. It shouldn’t have too much of an impact, though. There’s even a precedent for that in Arkansas football history.

Most fans associate Tyler Wilson with the 2011 team that won the Cotton Bowl and finished the year ranked No. 5 nationally — not the 4-8 disaster under John L. Smith.

Those from the pre-SEC era remember Quinn Grovey for leading the Razorbacks to back-to-back SWC titles and 10-win seasons — not his 3-8 senior season under Jack Crowe.

Heck, some old-timers still claim Joe Ferguson is one of the best quarterbacks in school history, despite him having terrible numbers (46.9% completion, 15 INT/9 TD) and being benched as a senior amid a 6-5 campaign.

As a fan, you don’t have to root for KJ Jefferson at his next school — especially if it’s in the SEC — or even wish him well. But whatever he does next season shouldn’t change your outlook of what he accomplished in an Arkansas football uniform, even if that means returning to his 2021-22 form in his new colors and getting one last win at Razorback Stadium.



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