FAYETTEVILLE — Considered a dark horse candidate throughout the offseason, KJ Jefferson is entering a critical stretch of the season when it comes to building a Heisman Trophy resume.
With matchups against Texas A&M and Alabama looming, the Arkansas quarterback is currently listed at 100-to-1 on BetOnline to win the prestigious award. That is tied for the 19th-best odds after he shot up to 33-to-1 last week.
The significant drop is due to the Razorbacks narrowly escaping an upset bid by FCS Missouri State, but there is plenty of opportunity ahead for Jefferson to climb back into the race.
“If the Hogs were to beat A&M and Alabama, and Jefferson was instrumental in those victories (no injury replacement or whatever), then his odds would decrease significantly,” Adam Burns, the sportsbook director at BetOnline.ag, told Best of Arkansas Sports. “Jefferson wouldn’t be the favorite, unless some other Top 5 teams had also lost, but he’d be around 15-1 or 20-1 with those wins under his belt.”
An Arkansas player has never won the award, but running back Darren McFadden finished runner-up to Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith and Florida quarterback Tim Tebow in 2006 and 2007, respectively.
Since then, even getting a player into the Heisman Trophy conversation has been tough for the Razorbacks. Alex Collins entered the mix with 33-to-1 odds after news of Jonathan Williams’ season-ending injury before the 2015 season, but he quickly fell off the board after a loss to Toledo.
According to research by BetOnline.ag, which started tracking weekly Heisman odds in 2012, you have to go back a decade to find the last time an Arkansas football player had legitimate buzz.
Entering the 2012 season, quarterback Tyler Wilson (33-to-1) — who was also 27th with 70-to-1 odds entering 2011 — and running back Knile Davis (50-to-1) had the 11th- and 16th-best Heisman Trophy odds before their chances followed their former coach into a ditch with an early-season loss to ULM.
That highlights the importance of the upcoming stretch for Jefferson. For him — or, as we discuss below, any star Arkansas football player — to likely even have a chance to get invited to New York City, the Razorbacks must be in the mix for a national title.
Since the College Football Playoff was created in 2014, seven of eight Heisman Trophy winners played on teams that were among the four-team field. The lone exception was in 2016 with Louisville’s Lamar Jackson — coached by Bobby Petrino, the man who nearly derailed Jefferson’s chances last week.
Luckily for Jefferson’s chances and Arkansas’ national title shot, the Hogs rallied and avoided an ugly loss. They’re ranked 10th in both the AP and Coaches Poll with a 3-0 record and, to be honest, a couple of other players have arguably outperformed Jefferson to this point of the season.
However, for someone like running back Rocket Sanders or linebacker Drew Sanders — who have put up gaudy numbers through three games — to move from off the board and into the Heisman Trophy conversation, it’d probably take some Herculean efforts the next few weeks.
“We start the season with a long list of names that ultimately gets whittled down as games are played and projections are busted,” Burns said. “Long shots are added via outstanding performances, requests from our customers and trending story lines. But at the end of the day, the Heisman Trophy is a beauty contest. Unfortunately, it’s not the best player in the country who wins, it’s the best player on the best team. Lamar Jackson was the last player who didn’t fit this mold.”
Nevertheless, Best of Arkansas Sports felt like a quarter of the way through the 2022 season was a good time to reassess and see where a few potential Heisman Trophy candidates stand as of now…
Making the Case: QB KJ Jefferson
Coming off a season in which he racked up more than 3,300 total yards and 27 touchdowns while leading the Razorbacks to a 9-4 record, KJ Jefferson was a favorite “dark horse” candidate almost immediately after last season ended.
He opened up with 50-to-1 odds and entered the season at 66-to-1, according to BetOnline. He actually dipped some, falling to 80-to-1, after the Cincinnati win before the aforementioned large fluctuations the last two weeks.
Regardless of how Vegas or national pundits see him, Jefferson has been very good through the first three weeks of 2022. He’s completed 70.5 percent of his passes for 770 yards and six touchdowns while adding 169 yards and three more scores on the ground. His lone interception wasn’t his fault, as the intended receiver tipped it into the air for an easy pick, but even with it, Jefferson has a 176.3 passer rating, which ranks 18th nationally and third in the SEC.
It’s still only three games, but he’s on pace to post the seventh 3,000-yard season through the air and break Matt Jones’ single-season record for rushing yards by a quarterback.
“Going into last year’s game against A&M, our main concern was, ‘How are we going to run KJ?’” head coach Sam Pittman said. “But now, he can hurt you either way. Very confident throwing the football. We’ve got to get him revved up early. We’ve got to get him involved in the game early, whether that be running or whether that be throwing.”
But don’t just listen to Pittman or Jefferson’s teammates. To get an even better feel for how difficult it is to defend a 6-foot-3, 242-pound quarterback, talk to opposing coaches tasked with trying to do just that.
Bobby Petrino, who knows a thing or two about good quarterbacks, lit up with a big smile when asked about Jefferson last week and said he presented a lot of challenges.
“He’s big, he can throw the ball, he can throw it deep, he’s an accurate passer, he’s a great runner,” Petrino said. “His biggest uniqueness is you can have free rushers and get guys right there to sack him and he breaks the tackle and runs out of it and either throws the ball after he breaks the tackle or takes off and runs.”
Having just watched the tape of Jefferson’s 385-yard performance against Missouri State, Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher told reporters Monday that Jefferson makes the Razorbacks’ offense go, describing him as “dynamic” and calling him “one of the best in the business.”
Earlier in the season, South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer called him a “major, major weapon” for Arkansas.
“The thing that just is impressive about him is…because of his size, people have a hard time getting him down,” Beamer said. “People bounce off of him in the pocket when they try to sack him, and then he’s able to get himself out of trouble but then keep his eyes downfield and throw the ball downfield. He’s not always just looking to run.”
Cincinnati head coach Luke Fickell said you can’t even really simulate Jefferson in practice because of the way he plays the position at his size.
“Not just is he a dual-threat guy to run, he’s a dual-threat guy to run you over,” Fickell said. “I think the unique thing about it is when a quarterback’s not just willing, but able to run downhill — not just laterally. To me, they put a lot more pressure on defenses.”
It’s easy to focus on what Jefferson can do with his legs, as he needs just 42 more yards to become the seventh quarterback in UA history to reach 1,000 career rushing yards, but he is also dangerous with his arm.
Last season, he was one of 111 FBS quarterbacks to attempt 31 or passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield, according to Pro Football Focus. Factoring in drops, he was accurate on 65% of those throws — by far the best mark of that group. Next closest was Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe at 58.9%.
Even without Treylon Burks, Jefferson has proven to still have one of the best deep balls in the country. According to PFF, he has completed 6 of 11 passes thrown at least 20 yards downfield and one of the incompletions was a drop. That means he was accurate on 63.6% of those passes, which is tied for fifth among 94 FBS quarterbacks with at least 10 such attempts so far this year.
Making the Case: RB Rocket Sanders
Perhaps one of the most surprising developments for Arkansas football through three games has been the emergence of Rocket Sanders as a workhorse running back.
He was believed to be the No. 1 guy entering the season, but most — including Sam Pittman — probably didn’t see him leading the SEC in rushing through three games.
“I knew he would have production, I just didn’t know we’d use him quite as much as we are,” Pittman said. “Probably a little bit surprised with his numbers that he’s had, and that not that I didn’t believe in him. It’s just he’s had more attempts than I thought probably at this point of time.”
Sanders is actually third nationally at 146.7 rushing yards per game, trailing only Illinois’ Chase Brown (165.3) and Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim (154.7), and his 440 total rushing yards are believed to be the fourth-most through three games in Arkansas football history. Only Darren McFadden, Ben Cowins and Jerry Eckwood had more.
|1. Darren McFadden||519||2007|
|2. Ben Cowins||476||1977|
|3. Jerry Eckwood||445||1975|
|4. Rocket Sanders||440||2022|
|5. Alex Collins||418||2013|
|6. Alex Collins||411||2014|
It was widely thought that fellow sophomore AJ Green and freshman Rashod Dubinion would get a little more work than they have and junior Dominique Johnson — who ended 2022 as the starter — was initially believed to return by now. Instead, Sanders has eclipsed 20 attempts in each game and now has 66 of 92 running back carries this season.
He is coming off a game against Missouri State in which he played all but five snaps, according to Pro Football Focus, and seems to be holding up well despite the increased workload.
“He’s a big, powerful guy, too, but he’s a smart runner,” Pittman said. “He’s learning that when you get wrapped up by a couple of guys that it’s time to get down. He’s starting to learn that instead of standing up there and taking the guy coming from 10 yards away and knocking the heck out of him.”
On top of what he does in the running back, Sanders is also a threat to catch passes out of the backfield. After all, he was originally recruited as a wide receiver before converting to running back immediately upon arrival in Fayetteville.
That was on display against Missouri State, as his 73-yard catch and run on a shovel pass was a huge play in helping Arkansas avoid the upset. That gives him eight receptions for 117 yards so far this season after he caught 11 passes for 109 yards all of last year.
Sanders has a very good chance to be the first Arkansas running back to eclipse 200 receiving yards in a season since Rawleigh Williiams III did it in 2016 and he very well could prove to be the Razorbacks’ best pass-catching back since Peyton Hillis, who actually had more receiving yards than rushing yards during his time in Fayetteville (2004-07).
Including his receiving production, Sanders is averaging 185.7 yards from scrimmage through three games, which ranks second nationally behind only Northwestern running back Evan Hull.
Those are all great numbers that, if he sustains them and Arkansas continues to have success on the field, could get Sanders at least into the Heisman Trophy conversation. Something working against him, though, is he still has very talented and capable runners around him, so he might not be counted on to score every touchdown.
In fact, Jefferson already has three himself, while Green and Dubinion have one apiece. When he returns, Johnson figures to be another player who could possibly steal goal line carries from Sanders because he is also a large running back. If fully healthy, Johnson could eventually shoulder some of the overall workload, too.
Making the Case: LB Drew Sanders
Since the Heisman Trophy was first awarded in 1935, only one primarily defensive player has ever won the award, and even he — Michigan defensive back Charles Woodson — also returned punts and played some receiver.
However, it has become more common for defensive players to get in the mix in recent years. Just last season, Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson and Alabama linebacker Will Anderson Jr. finished second and fifth, respectively, in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Both of them put up big numbers — 14 and 17.5 sacks, respectively — and made big plays in big moments. The latter part of that is still on the horizon for Arkansas linebacker Drew Sanders, but he’s well on his way to taking care of the statistical side of things.
Through three games, the Alabama transfer and former five-star recruit has 27 tackles, six tackles for loss, five sacks, two forced fumbles, two pass breakups and one quarterback hurry. The five sacks are second nationally behind only Michigan State’s Jacoby Windmon (5.5) and put him on pace to shatter the UA single-season record.
|t-1. Henry Ford||14||1995|
|t-1. Steven Conley||14||1993|
|3. Jamaal Anderson||13.5||2006|
|4. Wayne Martin||13||1988|
|5. Ray Lee Johnson||11||1992|
|6. Jake Bequette||10||2011|
|ON PACE – Drew Sanders|
Indeed, at the current rate, Sanders would tally 20 sacks in the regular season and eclipse Anderson’s all-time single season SEC record of 17.5 sacks. Sam Pittman admitted on Monday that Sanders is playing better than he could have imagined, but added that he still hasn’t hit his full potential yet. That is a scary thought for opposing quarterbacks, starting with Texas A&M’s Max Johnson this weekend.
If Jimbo Fisher had his way, the Aggies would be preparing for this week’s game with Sanders on their side, as he recruited him hard out of Ryan High School in Denton, Texas, and also would have liked to sign him out of the portal this past offseason.
“I’d have loved to have him,” Fisher said. “I think he’s a phenomenal player. You watch that guy play, he can rush the passer, he can play backer, he can run, he’s a special teams guy. Guy’s a heck of a player.”
For a defensive player to garner Heisman attention, though, he has to couple insane numbers while playing a key role in team success. Hutchinson and Anderson were part of Big Ten and SEC championship teams. Back in 2012, when Manti Te’o finished runner-up in Heisman voting, Notre Dame went undefeated in the regular season and played in the BCS National Championship.
Probably more so than KJ Jefferson and Rocket Sanders, Drew Sanders likely needs the Razorbacks to have an historic season to even get in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
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