The Beautiful Part of KJ Jefferson’s Nasty Hit

KJ Jefferson, Arkansas football, transfer portal
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

Arkansas has never had a player like him.

Matt Jones could run the football as good as, if not better than, any Razorbacks quarterback who came before him. Ryan Mallett could sling it the same.

But no one has had the running and throwing combination like KJ Jefferson and the junior has quickly, in 15 games, made himself an Arkansas icon because of it.

Jefferson’s stats are handsome. He’s completed almost 70% of this throws in his Arkansas career. He’s run for almost 1,000 yards in one-and-a-half seasons. He doesn’t throw interceptions.

His winning ways are more important. Arkansas is 11-4 over the last season-plus with Jefferson at the helm. The Hogs haven’t been in such a position in a decade. Following Saturday’s win over South Carolina, they’ll certainly be no worse than the No. 16 ranking with which they entered the game.

KJ Jefferson Beyond the Numbers

But even outside of the wins, which are for the fans, and the stats, which are for the national media, Jefferson’s brilliance has earned respect for other reasons. Frankly: the dude just plays hard.

Take Saturday. Jefferson wasn’t always under pressure. In fact, he rarely was. But Arkansas’ line – and no offensive line, really – wasn’t perfect. Jefferson had to run around in and out of the pocket on occasion. Each time, behind the line of scrimmage, he shrugged off would-be tacklers. He almost never goes down on the first blow. Even at his size – he’s 6-foot-3 and 240ish pounds – it’s impressive. His legs move like Jones’. His body is built like Mallett’s. Quarterbacks just aren’t supposed to do that time and time again.

On one play, late in the second quarter, after South Carolina had scored to cut into Arkansas’ 18-point lead, Jefferson put his body on the line. He ran up the gut around midfield and while falling forward, as he does, he took a shot to the helmet. The play was ugly enough that the officials flagged it for targeting, although after a review, the call was overturned (for whatever reason). 

To anyone watching, it was nasty. The helmets collided and Jefferson’s head went in another direction it was originally heading. Replays in the stadium, which were shown in slo-motion, were quite clear on that. Yet after the game, Jefferson said he didn’t even realize it.

“I didn’t even know I got hit in the head. I just know I got hit,” Jefferson said. “My mentality is just when I’m running the ball, one man can’t tackle me. I try to carry that.”

Toughness is a must-have quality in contact sports. As long as Jefferson wasn’t hurting after the knock to the noggin’, then all the kudos in the world are due him. Either way, the fact that he didn’t care is the most impressive. Football is a contact sport and Jefferson relishes that fact perhaps more than any other aspect of the game. It helps that coach Sam Pittman preaches it.

“He emphasizes physicality,” tackle Dalton Wagner said. “We love it. He loves it. I think the whole state loves it.”

A Winning Equation for Arkansas Football

Jefferson included. His two-yard scamper to the end zone was the first play of the fourth quarter and moved Arkansas’ lead from five points to 12. By the end of the game, he had hauled the ball 19 times for 67 yards.

Those are numbers befitting a 250-pound workhorse back from 1993. But the carry total wasn’t even his career high. He hit the 20-rush mark twice last year. Jones, for example, only had 20 carries once in his four seasons. In fact, Jones had double-digit carries 17 times. A lot, certainly, for a quarterback. But Jefferson already has 12 in his two-plus seasons (counting his technical redshirt season a couple years back).

It’s no surprise that the willingness to put his body on the line has had a positive effect on his teammates. Players want to be led by other players who walk the walk. Jefferson has no problem doing it.

“It’s just a mind thing,” Jefferson said after the game Saturday. “Run hard. Fall forward. Gain positive yards. I’m pretty sure my teammates like it, too. Gets them fired up as well.”

Jefferson said it like it was a simple formula. 

Run hard + fall forward + gain positive yards.

Football is, technically, a simple game that way. Progress your body on the frontal plane. It’s just harder in application when a mass of 250-pound, 300-pound men aged 18-23 are coming at you in hopes of stopping said progress. And as easy as it sounds, very obviously not everyone can do it.

No one, even, in Arkansas’ past.

Check out full highlights from Arkansas football’s win over South Carolina:

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