In the world of football, the path of a rising star is often intertwined with the footsteps of those who have paved the way to greatness. Such may be the case for Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson, who – after two exceptional seasons – is now in a position to learn from one of the NFL’s best quarterbacks, Jalen Hurts.
In a recent interview on The SEC Podcast, Jefferson alluded to how his new offensive coordinator, Dan Enos, is trying to make that happen. After all, Enos was Hurts’ quarterbacks coach at Alabama in 2018.
“(Enos has) tried to get both of us over the phone and stuff like that, to be able to just pick each other’s brain,” Jefferson said.
While Jefferson thinks of Hurts as a top five quarterback in the NFL, he wants to show that he, too, possesses unique attributes that could offer a fresh perspective to Hurts, saying, “I can be a resource for him.”.
The fact that Enos, Arkansas’s offensive coordinator, has tried to connect his current quarterback with one of his very successful former quarterbacks is not a surprise. The surprise is that Jefferson is not only looking to learn from Hurts, but thinks he has something to offer him as well.
Enos sees similar characteristics in all seven of the quarterbacks he’s coached who are now in the NFL.
“They’re all different… Left-hander, right-hander, some can run, some can’t, some are tall, some are short,” Enos told Bo Mattingly on the Hog Pod. “I don’t get wrapped up in all that. They’re all different, but there are a few commonalities they all possess. One of them is preparation. Another one is competitiveness. They want to be great. They don’t want to be told ‘You’re great.’ They want to be told, ‘here’s what you need to get better at so that you can continue to develop and get better.’ I know KJ has that.”
A desire for greatness isn’t the only thing that connects Hurts and Jefferson. Both are dual-threat quarterbacks. Jefferson, at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds, is more of a power runner; whereas Hurts, at 6-foot-1, 223 pounds, is a quicker, shiftier type. Both excel in extending plays and picking up yards in crucial situations.
They both hailed from run/pass option (RPO) heavy offenses and are now transitioning to pro-style offenses. Jefferson will be making that transition this year. Hurts started transitioning three years ago when entering the NFL.
It’s in the differences between the players, however, where we see areas in which they can help each other.
How Jalen Hurts Can Help KJ Jefferson
It’s not hard to imagine how an NFL quarterback who almost won the MVP last season could help someone like KJ Jefferson. I see two major areas in which Arkansas’ fifth-year senior could use help: learning how to take hits and how to operate the pro-style offense.
Jalen Hurts has been hit a lot already in his NFL career, but has missed only three games over three years. This comes from what his coach, Nick Sirianni, says is taking hits the “smart” way.
“We never want him to take a lot of hits, or any hits, for that matter,” Sirianni said. “(But) we’re going to do what we need to do to win the football game. … He’s smart with how he takes hits.”
This is something Jefferson can learn – how and when to take hits and how to take them in a way that doesn’t lead to injury. Jefferson missed two full games last year and played in at least one (Liberty) where his injuries obviously limited him.
Former Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones voiced his concern for Jefferson’s health on his show, Halftime, on ESPN Arkansas.
“It’s one of those deals where if you’re up 14 points in the second quarter, there’s no reason to be a heat seeker,” Jones said. “You gotta know that you give our team the best chance to win a game. That doesn’t mean ‘don’t go play and go be the superstar that you are,’ but be smart. You’ve got to be able to be out there on the field. You don’t do us any good sitting on the bench.”
It is not uncommon to see Jefferson take on defenders when running in the open field. This is something Jalen Hurts had a history of while at Alabama, but is now playing smarter, putting his body on the line only in first down and touchdown situations.
Hurts can also help Jefferson with his progression as a pro-style quarterback. Since high school, Jefferson has mostly been asked to play in an RPO heavy system full of simple reads and decisions for the quarterback. This season, though, Dan Enos will implement a pro-style offense that will challenge Jefferson to make pre-snap reads and go through a more complex receiver progression.
Hurts went through a similar transition coming from RPO-heavy Alabama and Oklahoma. In fact, the biggest knock on Hurts coming into the 2022 season with the Philadelphia Eagles was that he couldn’t run a pro-style offense; he was said to be too reliant on the one look RPO read. Hurts erased all those doubts by passing for 3,700 yards and 22 touchdowns. The Eagles still ran RPOs, but it accounted for only around 20% of their total plays.
Hurts’ ability to progress in a pro-style offense was a huge reason why the Eagles made such a large jump in wins from 2021 to 2022. Jefferson can absolutely benefit from Hurts’ wisdom on how to go about this change.
Not only can it help Jefferson with the Razorbacks’ offense this year, but it will also improve his draft stock. His lack of experience in the pro-style offense is the largest drawback scouts currently see in Jefferson’s game.
How KJ Jefferson Can Help Jalen Hurts
It may be hard to believe that a college quarterback could help an MVP runner-up in the NFL, but it is not uncommon to see relationships like these go both ways. Nick Saban, for example, is known for picking high school coaches’ brains when visiting recruits, probing to find any new angle or regimen to help him succeed.
KJ Jefferson has a multitude of skills that Jalen Hurts doesn’t, but I see him potentially helping Hurts in two main ways: throwing the deep ball and taking sacks less often.
Hurts improved his deep ball last year. In fact, Nick Shook from NFL.com ranked him the third-best deep passer in the league. Even though his numbers were strong, Hurts, much like Enos said, is known for his work ethic and relentlessness when it comes to improving his game.
The deep ball is an area where Jefferson thrives. Scouts rave about the beautiful touch he’s shown on his deep ball. NFLDraftBuzz.com has pegged Jefferson as its third-best deep ball passer in this year’s quarterback class, giving him a 92 out of 100 rating. Both quarterbacks could likely give each other some pointers in this area.
Hurts can also learn from Jefferson on getting sacked less frequently. Even though Hurts has less injuries than Jefferson, he actually took more sacks. Jefferson was sacked 23 times last year. That’s about 2.1 times per game. Hurts was taken down 38 times, approximately 2.5 times per game. Jefferson has shown an affinity for shedding tacklers and getting up field. Who can forget this play?
Sure, Jefferson’s tremendous strength and ability to shed defenders in an uncanny way isn’t easily replicable. But any techniques or regimens he is using can help enhance Hurts’ game.
Preparation and Commitment with Arkansas Football
KJ Jefferson is proving to his new coach that his desire to get better outweighs his pride.
“I’ve been really impressed by his preparation,” Dan Enos said. “He comes to meetings. He’s very prepared. He asks very good questions. He wants to be coached. He wants to be pushed.”
Jefferson can lead Arkansas football to greater heights and make a huge jump up draft boards this year by not only listening to his new coach, but by learning from as many former Enos quarterbacks as possible.
KJ Jefferson Analysis for 2024 NFL Draft
The NFL Draft analysts at NFL Draft Buzz have Jefferson going anywhere from the second round to a late round.
Certainly, the scouting report praises his ability to improvise in chaotic situations and throw the deep ball with nice touch. It adds: “Good accuracy overall, including excellent accuracy on short timing routes to backs and receivers, placing the ball slightly in front to lead receivers to potential yardage after the catch.”
But then dark clouds form.
The NFL Draft Buzz analyst points out flaws that Jefferson will need to correct under Enos to have any chance at landing in the second round come 2024:
- Jefferson has a bad habit of fading and throwing off his back foot when the pocket gets muddled, and he is too often all arm when throwing on the move, sacrificing accuracy.
- Has struggled with his decision-making and needs to improve his pre-snap recognition skills to read defenses and see blitzes. Doesn’t decipher information as quickly as you would like, but does see the entire field and understands coverage.
Neither of these are anything close to death knells, though. KJ Jefferson chose well to come back to school to polish these rough edges while adding considerable shine to his overall Arkansas football legacy.
More coverage of Arkansas football and KJ Jefferson from BoAS…