UPDATED For Razorback fans, there isn’t any doubt: KJ Jefferson is the best quarterback in the SEC coming into the 2023 season. Despite Arkansas football having an up-and-down season last year, the big man was outstanding, and he’s poised to dominate in 2023.
A few talking heads out there think otherwise — especially when it comes to LSU’s Jayden Daniels. Take the Sporting News’ Bill Bender, for example, who considers Daniels to be the “the leading Heisman Trophy candidate in the SEC heading into 2023” and has Daniels at No. 1 among all SEC quarterbacks (but has the good sense to not allow Jefferson to drop farther than No. 2).
To kick off SEC Media Days, two of three SEC Network analysts also threw their hat in with Daniels over Jefferson when it comes to the conference’s No. 1 quarterback.
First, we have Paul Finebaum, who called Daniels “a young man going up an escalator,” as if one year of steep improvement isn’t as valuable of two years of sustained success as Jefferson has. Daniels “has reason to be confident because he has so many parts around him so I’m taking an obvious one,” Finebaum says in the clip below.
Greg McElroy also harps on the improvement Daniels made in the 2022 season, which began only three weeks after he arrived on campus from Arizona State. “In Week 1 he was a guy that was a great athlete playing the quarterback position,” the former Alabama quarterback said. “He was awesome, he was a great runner, took off, and oftentimes he didn’t distribute and part of the problem was he just didn’t really trust anybody else.”
Another reason McElroy gives Daniels the edge is because LSU’s wide receiving corps appears to be more loaded (and is certainly more experienced) than Arkansas’: “Look at his supporting cast. You go five-deep at running back, they have arguably the best wide receiving corps in the SEC, plus Mason Taylor at tight end. I think Jayden Daniels, with how much more comfortable he got throwing the football as the season went, on is going to be a real problem for SEC defensive coordinators this year.”
Only Roman Harper, the former Alabama standout, shows the love for KJ.
“He has the ability to do it all,” Harper said. “He has the arm strength and the ability to be successful in every offense with his play-action heavy run game, quarterback run game, options, and if I need him to be throwing the ball timely and accurate down the field throws… For me, KJ Jefferson is the best quarterback because of his ability to do it all in every offense and still be successful and not turn it over.”
The oversights from Harper’s colleagues are all part of the bigger narrative of going for the unproven over the proven.
Earlier, in the spring, one Colege Football Network writer even has Kentucky’s Devin Leary (huh?!), an N.C. State transfer, ahead of Jefferson.
That’s fine. Jefferson feeds off that energy.
“My mom made sure she reminded me,” Jefferson told USA Today’s Blake Toppmeyer when he was ranked 14th in 247Sports’ SEC quarterback rankings before the 2021 season. “There would be times when I’m tired or I didn’t feel like working out or didn’t feel like doing this, and she’d send that list to me. And right then and there, I felt like, ‘I got you.’”
Here are just a few reasons why KJ Jefferson is the best quarterback in the SEC heading into the 2023 season:
Through the Air and On the Ground
KJ Jefferson’s prowess as a dual-threat quarterback is no secret. In 2022, he completed 68% of his passes for 2,648 yards and 24 touchdowns with only 5 interceptions. That earned him a passer rating of 165.21 — second in the SEC behind only Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker and slightly better than No. 1 overall draft pick Bryce Young. Both Hooker and Young are now in the NFL.
His completion percentages of 67.3 and 68 over the last two years are the second- and third-best marks in Arkansas football history, behind only the 68.5 mark Feleipe Franks put up in 2020.
Jefferson also ran for 640 yards and another 9 touchdowns. The 6-foot-3 fifth-year senior isn’t called Mini-Cam Newton for nothing. At 247 pounds, the man’s a serious load to bring down. He wowed fans last year with his ability to remain upright while taking shots from would-be tacklers. That size and strength allows him to stay in the pocket longer and stretch the defense with downfield passes. And when things fall apart, he uses his legs to escape.
“Well, Jayden Daniels threw and ran for more yards with a slightly better completion percentage,” an LSU football fan might say. That’s true. But Daniels was also sacked an eye-popping 43 times, the most in the SEC.
Neither Will Rogers nor Devin Leary have the ability to create with their legs.
Year over Year Consistency
There were questions aplenty heading into the 2022 season. The Hogs had lost KJ Jefferson’s favorite target, Treylon Burks, when he was selected by the Tennessee Titans in the first round of the NFL Draft.
During the 2021 season, it seemed like Jefferson was often tossing the ball up for grabs and trusting Burks to make the play. The stats reflect that fact. Burks led the team with 66 receptions, nearly tripling the number of catches from the Hogs’ No. 2 receiver, Tyson Morris, who finished with 24 grabs.
Without Burks, many expected the Razorbacks’ offense to take a step back in 2022. But Jefferson’s stats from 2021 were nearly identical to his 2022 stats.
It’s not easy to maintain the same level of success at the quarterback position after losing a receiver like Burks. However, Jefferson learned how to stay in the pocket, progress through his reads, and spread the ball to his pass catchers – 59 completions to Jadon Haselwood, 47 to Matt Landers, 26 to Trey Knox, and 28 to Rocket Sanders.
“Decision making, footwork within the pocket,” Jefferson said about his improvement from 2021 to 2022. ”I know I can get out of the pocket and create plays… but being calm in the pocket and delivering a good ball to my teammates.”
That type of distribution keeps defensive coordinators up at night. And doing more with less demonstrates Jefferson’s maturity at quarterback and growth as a team leader, which brings us to our next point.
Leadership for Arkansas Football
In addition to his physical abilities, KJ Jefferson is also a natural leader. He’s earned the respect of his teammates and coaches alike and has shown a remarkable ability to make the right decisions under pressure.
“Just being disciplined and being consistent, and coming from a leadership standpoint, being more vocal in adverse situations, making sure my guys are on the same page and we’re all on one accord,” Jefferson told Paul Finebaum before the 2022 season. “I would say that I evolved into the role… It grew on me as the season went on and now I’m in a position where I’m confident and comfortable being vocal.”
And Jefferson doesn’t just lead the offense. When he had to sit out the LSU game last season with a shoulder injury, he was engaged on the sidelines, pumping up guys on both sides of the ball.
“It’s a huge deal because KJ is one of those leaders that leads the entire team, not just the offense,” Pittman said after the game. “It’s big for us.”
Though the Hogs lost that game, the defense held LSU to 13 points, a season-best mark.
It’s hard to imagine Devin Leary having that type of role as a first-year transfer from NC State. And Jayden Daniels is often described as even-keeled; not a vocal leader on the sidelines or in the locker room. Will Rogers is another story. Coming into his fourth year at Mississippi State, and with the passing of the late Mike Leach, we can expect the Bulldogs and new head coach Zach Arnett to lean on Rogers.
That being said, the combination of Jefferson’s physical talent, continued production with an ever-changing roster of wideouts, and his sideline and locker room presence, Jefferson should be ahead of Will Rogers in every SEC quarterback ranking. Also, the Bulldogs have much bigger question marks on offense in the post-Leach era than Arkansas does with its new offensive coordinator.
What it Means for Arkansas Football
With Dan Enos returning to the Hill as offensive coordinator after Kendal Briles’ departure, and a new crop of wideouts bolstered through the transfer portal, there are once again questions aplenty surrounding the Razorbacks’ offense. Enos is no stranger to Arkansas football, and has proven his ability to get the most out of his quarterbacks at his stops in Alabama, Miami and Maryland.
We’ll likely see KJ Jefferson throwing a bit more and running a bit less this season in Enos’ offense. If this helps Arkansas’ signal caller stay healthy, that’s a good thing. And if he’s healthy, improvement over last year should follow suit.
“There’s always room for improvement, because I’m so hard on myself and I have a higher ceiling,” Jefferson said this spring. “But I’m loving it, it’s fun being in shotgun more now. But I mean, it’s fun just being able to get under center and call different audibles and stuff like that that gets me prepared for the next level. So I’m enjoying it.”
As a third-year starter, Jefferson gives the team a high floor and a much higher ceiling for success.
For more from KJ himself, see 34:30 below:
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