FAYETTEVILLE — Sam Pittman gave Arkansas football fans a bit of good news regarding the health of his quarterback during his weekly radio show Wednesday evening.
After not participating in the first two practices this week, KJ Jefferson was able to get on the field Wednesday afternoon and Pittman confirmed he’ll be part of the Razorbacks’ 70-man travel roster for Saturday’s game at No. 23 Mississippi State.
“KJ practiced today,” Pittman said on his radio show. “I don’t know what that means, to be perfectly honest with you. He still has a ways to go on that. We’re certainly not going to play him unless he’s capable and healthy and all those type things.”
“We’re going to take him on the trip. Whether he plays or not still waiting to be seen. We’ve got a few more days to figure some of that out.”
Getting on the practice field by Wednesday was the first milestone Jefferson had to clear in order to at least be considered to play this weekend, as that’s the deadline Pittman has for every player dealing with an injury.
Jefferson is recovering from what is believed to be a concussion, albeit without Pittman ever explicitly using that word to describe his injury. He did mention after the Alabama game that Jefferson “hit his head” and added Monday that he was dealing with “mild symptoms,” but declined to confirm whether he was in concussion protocol.
Although he was still able to take part in meetings, Jefferson was relegated to the sideline during practice Monday and Tuesday. When Pittman spoke with reporters Wednesday, he had not yet met with head athletic trainer Dave Polanski, but he said how much Jefferson responded to his first practice work would go a long way in determining his status.
“I have no idea, because I don’t know how well he’s going to react to physical movement,” Pittman said. “If he reacts really well, then we’ll have a decision to make on what we’re going to do moving forward, depending on how much he practices today.”
With the Razorbacks still in “wait-and-see” mode with Jefferson, conversation in the meantime has shifted to who they might play at quarterback if he’s unavailable.
KJ Jefferson’s Injury Status
If KJ Jefferson can’t play, Arkansas has two options at quarterback: Cade Fortin and Malik Hornsby.
The latter of those two players was the backup last season and listed as the No. 2 quarterback on the depth chart the first five weeks of this season, but it was the former who went in the game against Alabama last week.
After the game, Sam Pittman revealed Fortin jumped Hornsby for the backup job and that it has been that way “for a while.” As Best of Arkansas Sports has extensively covered, there were signs of that leading up to the fourth quarter against the Crimson Tide.
During his weekly press conference Monday afternoon, Pittman described Fortin as more of a passing quarterback and Hornsby as more of a runner, but said he still felt like he had “two really good quarterbacks.” In fact, he said both could see the field Saturday if Jefferson doesn’t play.
“I think there’s a real possibility that we would do that,” Pittman said Wednesday. “Certainly we would go with a hot hand, I would say. But in our game plan, there’s certainly opportunities for both of those kids to play if KJ can’t.”
With the Razorbacks not ruling out Jefferson and Pittman dangling the idea of using a two-quarterback system if he doesn’t play, Mississippi State must prepare for three different quarterbacks.
However, head coach Mike Leach said he doesn’t see that as much of a disadvantage for the Bulldogs.
“Well, I think they’ll stick with what they do on offense, at least to a large extent,” Leach said. “And so, you know, you’re still preparing for the same offense.”
As you might imagine, the other Razorbacks — including the man responsible for getting him the ball each play — are showing faith in whoever goes under center.
“It doesn’t matter who’s behind me, who I’m snapping to, because I’ve got great confidence in them,” center Ricky Stromberg said. “We have three really good QBs, including KJ obviously. So no, I have no concern with them at all. I’m excited to have either one of them behind me. As an offense, we’re confident in them.”
Who is Cade Fortin?
Considering his status as the backup quarterback, and the fact that he took the first-team snaps in a brief team period viewed by the media Tuesday, Cade Fortin is seemingly the most likely choice to start if KJ Jefferson is out.
His appearance late in the Alabama loss had many casual Arkansas football fans wondering who he was, which is understandable because he came to Fayetteville with much less fanfare than Malik Hornsby, a four-star recruit.
In fact, Fortin is a walk-on — albeit not your average walk-on. He was previously on scholarship at both North Carolina and South Florida before entering the transfer portal for a second time.
Thanks to his recruitment of four-star offensive lineman Warren Ericson at North Gwinnett High in Suwanee, Ga., as an assistant at Georgia, Sam Pittman was already familiar with Fortin, but didn’t know him very well. It was actually a connection with quality control coach Mark Cala that helped the Razorbacks land him without a scholarship.
“Cade’s not on scholarship or anything,” Pittman said. “He just wanted to find a place where he thought he could grow. He liked Mark Cala, to be honest with you. He had some sort of relationship with him before, and he obviously knew about Kendal, so they struck up a relationship.”
Arkansas was actively searching for someone like Fortin because it had a desperate need at the position even with Jefferson returning. Behind him, the only other quarterbacks on the roster were Hornsby, Lucas Coley and Kade Renfro.
Hornsby briefly entered the portal before coming back, Coley entered the portal and transferred out during spring ball and Renfro went down with a torn ACL during bowl practices in December. It wasn’t exactly a picture of stability in the event of an injury to Jefferson, so being able to add someone like Fortin without using one of its precious few remaining scholarships was a no-brainer.
“We had a need there — we didn’t have much depth there,” Pittman said. “He’s been an outstanding member of our team. Very mature kid, works hard, knowledgeable, good thrower and can run. I think if you asked his teammates about him, they’d say he’s been a great addition to the program.”
The media had an opportunity to do just that Tuesday evening after practice and wide receiver Ketron Jackson Jr. echoed Pittman’s sentiment.
“He’s very confident,” Jackson said. “I’m very confident in him. We’re on the same page. We’ve got our timing in the offseason, so I feel great about the timing part of that. I feel like he’s a great quarterback. He’s very calm in the pocket.”
Fortin’s Path to Arkansas Football
Even though he was injured most of his senior year, when Sam Pittman was busy recruiting his teammate, Cade Fortin was still a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school.
He played in the Georgia Elite All-Star Classic after his junior season and was nominated for the 2018 U.S. Army All-American Bowl before his senior year. ESPN rated him a four-star recruit and he was committed to Texas A&M for more than a year, but backed off his pledge when Kevin Sumlin was fired.
That opened the door for him to sign with North Carolina. Thanks to a couple of injuries ahead of him on the depth chart, Fortin actually started a couple of games — against Virginia Tech and North Carolina State — and played in two others. An injury of his own limited him to those four games, preserving his redshirt.
As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Fortin battled for the starting job, but lost out to a true freshman named Sam Howell, who went on to earn numerous honors for the Tar Heels before getting taken in the fifth round of this year’s NFL Draft.
Fortin opted to enter the portal before that season and landed at South Florida. Unfortunately, injuries again limited him to only two games in 2020. Last year, he appeared in five games, including starts against North Carolina State and Florida.
Across both of his previous stops, Fortin’s numbers don’t jump off the page. He completed 61 of 121 passes (50.4%) for 645 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Although listed as a pro-style quarterback coming out of high school, he’s shown to be a capable runner, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and scoring two rushing touchdowns.
His lack of production and consistent playing time is likely why the Razorbacks were able to scoop him up as a walk-on nearly two months after he entered the portal.
Arkansas Starting Quarterback
If KJ Jefferson is unable to play and either Cade Fortin or Malik Hornsby starts in his place, it’d mark the fifth time in six years that Arkansas has used multiple starting quarterbacks in the same season. The lone exception was last year, when Jefferson started all 13 games.
Prior to that, injuries forced Jefferson to start one game in place of Feleipe Franks in 2020 and Cole Kelley to start four games in place of Austin Allen in 2017. In between those instances was the two-year quarterback carousel under Chad Morris in which eight different quarterbacks started over a 24-game span.
Fortin could join an exclusive list if he gets the nod. AJ Derby (vs. Rutgers in 2013) and Jack Lindsey (vs. Missouri in 2019) are believed to be the only players who began their careers at Arkansas as walk-ons who started a game at quarterback during the SEC era (since 1992). It’s worth noting that Wade Hill, another walk-on, started games in 1991.
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