After Missing on One Last Year, Gus Malzahn Lands Different Arkansas QB

KJ Jefferson, Gus Malzahn, Arkansas football, UCF football, transfer portal
photo credit: KJ Jefferson/Instagram / UCF Athletics

Former Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson has found his new home, committing to the UCF football program via the transfer portal on Monday.

There had been early speculation that he might remain in the SEC, possibly with one of the Razorbacks’ 2024 opponents like Auburn, but he ended up heading to the Big 12 instead.

The move means Jefferson’s new coach will be a familiar name to Arkansas football fans — Gus Malzahn.

A highly successful high school coach in the Natural State before breaking into the college ranks, Malzahn was a walk-on at Arkansas for a couple of years before transferring to Henderson State and also coached for the Razorbacks as the offensive coordinator on their 2006 team that won the SEC West.

It seems like a natural fit for Jefferson, as he has long been compared to Cam Newton because of his size (6-foot-3, 247 pounds) and style as a dual-threat, RPO quarterback.

Newton was, of course, the quarterback on Auburn’s 2010 national championship team and won the Heisman Trophy with Malzahn as his offensive coordinator.

Since then, Malzahn has had varying levels of success with dual-threat quarterbacks like Nick Marshall and Bo Nix at Auburn and, most recently, Ole Miss transfer John Rhys Plumlee at UCF.

The Knights tried to recruit Plumlee’s replacement away from Arkansas last year, making a strong push for Malachi Singleton late in the process, but the four-star quarterback stuck with the Razorbacks.

Malzahn ended up nabbing his next quarterback from Arkansas anyways and, considering his track record with similar quarterbacks, it isn’t a stretch to think Jefferson will bounce back from a disappointing 2023 season and finish his collegiate career on a high note with UCF football.

KJ Jefferson with the Razorbacks

A member of the Razorbacks’ heralded 2019 signing class, KJ Jefferson was a raw, but talented prospect coming out of a small school in Sardis, Miss. He was tabbed a four-star recruit by all of the major services while at North Panola High School and reported offers from the likes of Georgia, Mississippi State, Missouri, Ole Miss and several others.

He ultimately chose to play for Chad Morris at Arkansas and even started one game as a true freshman. That lone start just so happened to come in the first game after Morris’ firing at on the road against No. 1 LSU.

It didn’t go particularly well for Jefferson in that game, but he made the most of his second opportunity, which came against Missouri in Sam Pittman’s first season. Starting for an injured Feleipe Franks, he threw for 274 yards and three touchdowns, plus ran for another.

That included a touchdown and two-point conversion that gave the Razorbacks the lead with only 43 seconds remaining. Unfortunately for Arkansas, that was enough time for Missouri to answer with a game-winning field goal.

Despite that game ending in a loss, Jefferson proved to Pittman that he was capable of being the starter. What followed was a record-breaking career.

As a three-year starter, Jefferson broke the UA career records for passing yards (7,911), passing touchdowns (67), total yards (9,787) and total touchdowns (88). He did all of that while completing 65.1% of his passes and throwing only 18 interceptions.

He led the Razorbacks to a 9-4 record and Outback Bowl win in 2021 and was also 7-4 as the starter in 2022, missing a pair of games because of an injury. He also clearly wasn’t himself in a loss to Liberty, when he played despite not being healthy.

Offensive coordinator Dan Enos took over for Kendal Briles last offseason, though, and the change clearly hurt Arkansas’ offense. Despite the unit sputtering and him not playing as well as he had in the past, Jefferson still completed 64.2% of his passes for 2,107 yards, 19 touchdowns and 8 interceptions while adding another 447 yards and two scores on the ground.

What it Means for Arkansas Football

As disappointing as it was to lose a veteran, record-breaking quarterback, this was about as ideal of a situation as possible for Arkansas football.

By not landing at Auburn or anywhere else in the SEC, the Razorbacks don’t have to worry about KJ Jefferson pulling a Ty Storey and getting his revenge by beating them with his new school — barring a matchup with UCF football in a bowl game.

Even though it was a while before he officially entered the portal, Jefferson told Sam Pittman that was his plan during his exit meeting with the coach.

That allowed the Razorbacks, and new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, to pursue quarterbacks in the transfer portal and they found their man in Taylen Green.

A true dual-threat quarterback, Green was the 2022 Mountain West Freshman of the year and ended his time with Boise State on a high note, earning Offensive MVP honors in the MWC Championship Game.

Considering he was Petrino’s hand-picked guy, Green figures to have the inside track to the starting job in 2024. However, he’ll have to battle Jacolby Criswell, who transferred back home from North Carolina last offseason and was Jefferson’s backup this year.

There’s also a chance redshirt freshman Malachi Singleton or true freshman KJ Jackson make a push, as both were/are touted four-star recruits coming out of high school.

For a closer look at Arkansas’ quarterback situation without KJ Jefferson, check out Connor Goodson’s great in-depth breakdown of the position.

Arkansas Football Players in the Transfer Portal

Here’s a list of all 15 scholarship Arkansas football players who have decided to enter the transfer portal during the 2023-24 cycle and where they’ve landed… 

  • DT Anthony Booker Jr.
  • DT Taurean Carter
  • DB Malik Chavis
  • LB Jordan Crook — Arizona State
  • RB AJ Green — Tulsa
  • QB KJ Jefferson — UCF
  • DB Jaylen Lewis — Temple
  • OL Devon Manuel
  • WR Sam Mbake
  • LB Chris Paul Jr. — Ole Miss
  • LB Mani Powell
  • RB Rocket Sanders — South Carolina
  • WR Bryce Stephens
  • OL Joey Su’a — Arizona State
  • LB Jaheim Thomas

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Here’s a look at what UCF football is getting in KJ Jefferson:

More coverage of Arkansas football and the transfer portal from BoAS…

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