With a dominant performance in the Liberty Bowl, KJ Jefferson once again proved he is among the country’s elite quarterbacks while giving Arkansas football fans a glimmer of hope for the future after an up-and-down season and tumultuous start to the offseason.
There is plenty to be upset about or concerned with — losing 3 of 4 games to end the regular season, all of the transfer portal departures, blowing a 25-point lead, the officiating, etc. — but Jefferson at least helped the Razorbacks avoid the sting of a loss, leading them to a wild 55-53 triple overtime win over Kansas in Memphis.
The Sardis, Miss., native capped an incredible individual season with 417 yards of offense and four total touchdowns — plus a pair of critical two-point conversion completions that don’t show up in the stat sheet — against the Jayhawks.
To say Sam Pittman is thrilled that it wasn’t Jefferson’s final appearance in an Arkansas uniform would be an understatement. The Razorbacks’ head coach was giddy with excitement when asked about his quarterback’s performance during his postgame interview on the UA radio broadcast.
“Aren’t you glad he came back? I know I am,” Pittman said. “I’m kind of excited he came back. He’s a great player, he’s a better person and he’s the leader of our football team. That’s just what it is and he played his heart out for the Arkansas Razorbacks tonight.”
On top of his own impressive stat line, Jefferson led an offense that piled up 681 yards and 55 points — both of which were UA bowl records.
He did that despite being without three of his top four wide receivers, his top tight end and his All-SEC center, not to mention losing his All-SEC running back and another offensive lineman early in the game, forcing a pair of true freshmen into larger roles than expected.
“I think what he did better than anything tonight was he led the football team,” Pittman said in his postgame press conference. “He was very vocal. I think when you’re playing well, it’s easier to be vocal as well. I think it’s easier to because you’re feeling better… I thought he was in charge of the football game.”
The Liberty Bowl was further proof of Jefferson’s importance to the Razorbacks. Over the last two seasons, Arkansas has a 16-8 record in his starts — and half of those losses have been by three points or less, including a Liberty game in which Jefferson was clearly hampered by injury and still nearly led the team to a top-25 victory.
This season, the Razorbacks averaged 37.7 points and 496.8 yards in 10 games with a healthy KJ Jefferson — figures that would have broken single-season school records and ranked 12th and seventh nationally, respectively.
“The last two years have been — three years really — so much fun playing with him,” right tackle Dalton Wagner said. “He’s got a confidence and swagger to him. … KJ is an awesome leader out there. He’s always calm, he’s always cool and collected. And most importantly, he trusts us.”
KJ Jefferson Enjoys Great 2022
What KJ Jefferson did in the Liberty Bowl was not an anomaly. Sure, he set a career-high for rushing yards with 130, but the performance was just part of a phenomenal 2022 for the redshirt junior.
In his second season as the Razorbacks’ full-time starter, Jefferson completed exactly 68% of his passes for 2,648 yards, 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions, plus added another 640 yards and nine scores on the ground.
Despite the fact that he missed two games with injuries and played hurt in another, it was still one of the best seasons by a quarterback in Arkansas history. Jefferson posted top-10 marks in completion percentage (2nd), passing yards (8th) and touchdown passes (t-6th).
Throw in what he did on the ground and Jefferson accounted for 3,288 yards and 33 touchdowns, which rank eighth and second, respectively, on UA single-season lists.
He was also one of the best quarterbacks in college football this season by multiple metrics, including traditional statistics and advanced analytics.
Jefferson ranked eighth in the FBS in passer rating (165.2), 11th in passing yards per attempt (8.83) and 12th in completion percentage (68%). He’s also 17th in ESPN’s Total QBR with a 77.9 mark.
Pro Football Focus gives him a 90.4 overall grade, which is No. 10 in the country and third in the SEC — only slightly behind Alabama’s Bryce Young (91.7) and Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker (90.9).
A true dual-threat quarterback, Jefferson posted an 84.9 passing grade and 79.4 rushing grade on PFF. Both of those marks are 15th in the country. The only other FBS quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks and top-20 grades in both areas are Hooker, Florida State’s Jordan Travis and USC’s Caleb Williams, who won the Heisman Trophy.
Jefferson also had the fourth-best passer rating against Power Five competition among quarterbacks who played multiple such games this season. His 161.0 mark trailed only three quarterbacks who finished in the top five of Heisman Trophy voting — Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud (169.0), Hooker (167.0) and Williams (166.1).
What Could Have Been for Arkansas Football
The 2022 season was likely defined by the dreaded two-word phrase that Arkansas football fans are all too familiar with: What if?
Specifically, what if KJ Jefferson never got hurt and stayed healthy for a full 13-game season? He missed the Mississippi State game with what is believed to have been a concussion and then a shoulder injury severely limited him against Liberty and kept him out of the LSU game.
It’s hard to say whether or not his presence would have changed the result against Mississippi State, which beat the Razorbacks 40-17 in Starkville, but it’s not too much of a stretch to say a healthy Jefferson would have been the difference against the Flames and Tigers — teams they lost to 21-19 and 13-10, respectively.
With a healthy Jefferson, Arkansas is likely more efficient in the red zone against Mississippi State and who knows how that game would have played out. Just flip the results of those latter two games and the Razorbacks are suddenly 8-4 for a second straight season instead of 6-6.
The ripple effects of that would have been felt far and wide. In that scenario, Alabama wins the division and represents the SEC West in Atlanta instead of LSU. If the Crimson Tide had then knocked off Georgia in the SEC Championship game, it would have been the SEC — not the Big Ten — with a pair of representatives in the College Football Playoff.
It’s impossible to know exactly what Jefferson would have done in those three games if he was healthy, but you can calculate an estimate from the average of his other 10 games.
His projected numbers include a school-record completion percentage of 68.7% for 3,073 yards, 29 touchdowns and only four interceptions. That’d increase his passer rating to 169.8, which would be fourth in the FBS.
Those calculations also give Jefferson a projected 785 rushing yards and 12 rushing touchdowns. That would have broken Matt Jones’ single-season UA record for rushing yards by a quarterback, plus 3,858 total yards and 41 total touchdowns — both of which would have been school records.
Looking Ahead to 2023 for KJ Jefferson
Enough with the hypotheticals, though. KJ Jefferson was sensational when healthy this season, but unfortunately for the Razorbacks, he dealt with multiple injuries.
Some thought that his Arkansas football career might be over, as he could have declared for the NFL Draft or — in a doomsday scenario — entered the transfer portal. Instead, he ended any speculation about his future last month by announcing his decision to return for at least one more season with the Razorbacks.
There are plenty of questions surrounding next year’s offense, including what the offensive line will look like after losing three of five starters and who exactly will catch his passes after losing five of his top six targets, but Jefferson — and a deep stable of running backs — gives Sam Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles a solid core to build around this off-season.
In fact, with Bryce Young, Hendon Hooker, Will Levis and Stetson Bennett IV moving on, a strong case could be made for Jefferson being the best returning quarterback in the SEC. LSU is getting Jayden Daniels back, Mississippi State returns Will Rogers and South Carolina is still waiting on a decision from Spencer Rattler, but the Arkansas signal caller is arguably better than any of them.
Another year with the Razorbacks will also likely put KJ Jefferson’s name atop every major career precord at the school.
He’s already top 10 in passing yards (7th – 5,816), touchdown passes (6th – 48), total yards (5th – 7,245) and total touchdowns (4th – 67). Even a mediocre season would move him into first place on each of those lists.
Jefferson needs just 1,950 yards and 17 touchdowns through the air to top marks set by Tyler Wilson and Brandon Allen, respectively. Those numbers would help him shatter the total yards and total touchdowns records currently held by Matt Jones.
With only 571 rushing yards, a number he’s surpassed each of the last two seasons, Jefferson would become the 20th member of the 2,000-yard club in UA history — and just the second quarterback. He probably won’t catch Jones’ rushing total (he’d need 1,107 yards to pass him), but Jefferson needs only six rushing touchdowns to pass him for the most ever by an Arkansas quarterback.
He’ll also enter the 2023 season with the fourth-best yards-per-play average in school history. Jefferson’s 7.05-yard average ranks behind only Ryan Mallett (8.07), Jones (7.35) and Wilson (7.30).
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