FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas football program hasn’t had a quarterback controversy since Sam Pittman took over nearly three years ago and, despite what a segment of the fan base believes, it still doesn’t.
Redshirt junior KJ Jefferson is obviously banged up, but that’s a fact of life with a mobile quarterback — especially one with as physical of a style as him — and he’s proven to be the unquestioned starter barring significant injury.
The latter part of that came up during the Razorbacks’ 21-19 loss to Liberty over the weekend because Jefferson was clearly not himself for a majority of the game. During the postgame press conference, Pittman even admitted to asking offensive coordinator Kendal Briles if he felt like they should make a change at quarterback.
“I had talked to (Briles) about it a little bit,” Pittman said. “He told me what I needed to hear, that KJ is our guy and he’ll get going here eventually. And he is our guy. In my opinion, that was the right thing to do, leaving him in there.”
The acknowledgment that he considered putting in backup Malik Hornsby, but didn’t after talking to Briles, has dominated the radio waves on sports talk radio, not to mention social media and message boards.
Some fans took the comment to mean Briles made the final call and have claimed Pittman should have veto power as the head coach. That is reading way too much into it, though.
The third-year coach was simply asking his coordinator — who had been in every meeting and film session, plus seen every rep of every practice — for his educated opinion. It was no different than asking him about a certain third-down call. If Pittman felt like a move should have been made, he would have done it.
Plus, he clarified on Monday that the conversation with Briles had more to do with Jefferson’s injury than his ineffectiveness. As his position coach, Briles probably knows his quarterback better than anyone and can pick up on subtle cues if he was too hurt to stay in the game.
Ultimately, though, Pittman and Briles decided that a banged-up Jefferson — whether at 70%, 80% or whatever — gave the Razorbacks a better chance to win than Hornsby at 100%.
“It was about ‘is he healthy enough to play’ and the answer was yes,” Pittman said. “So there was never really a thought of pulling him out because of performance. It was about whether he was healthy or not. And obviously he ended up playing the last quarter or so well. He got back in the groove a little bit.”
Should Malik Hornsby Have Played?
The idea that Arkansas should have made a switch, or even gone with Malik Hornsby from the start, was given more credence thanks to a postgame comment by wide receiver Jadon Haselwood.
“Obviously this week, Malik was getting most of the snaps and throwing to us and stuff like that,” Haselwood said. “I mean, I didn’t know who was starting coming into the game just like you all.”
That does raise a valid question about why one of your top receivers didn’t know who the starting quarterback would be, but it can easily be explained by KJ Jefferson being a true game-time decision. Rumors were swirling about his availability in the hours leading up to kickoff, so it seems like that may have actually been the case.
What might have been a good idea, though, was inserting Hornsby for a drive just to see if he could jump-start the offense with his elite speed. After all, only one of the Razorbacks’ first 11 possessions resulted in points and that was a field goal made possible by a penalty to end the first half. Until the final two drives of the game, Arkansas had managed only 249 yards.
Giving an electric, albeit one-dimensional, quarterback a look couldn’t have hurt, but Pittman understandably stuck with Jefferson and, even given the benefit of retrospect, said he believed it was the right call.
“(The media) and the public and all that, you’ve got postgame to sit down and go, ‘Maybe this should have happened? Maybe that should have happened?’” Pittman said. “You’re making real time decisions.
“I think it is true if you don’t practice the entirety of the practice each day and each week, you’re not going to play as well. I think that’s been proven over the test of time. But at the same time, when KJ said he was ready and he wanted to go…I believe that most people would say, ‘Okay, let’s go.’ I know I did.”
That’s also a fair point, as Jefferson has been really good for the Razorbacks when he’s played and Hornsby — while he’s flashed — is still very inconsistent and not particularly close to the same level.
Against Mississippi State, Hornsby rushed for 114 yards and showed off a cannon on a 54-yard touchdown strike to Bryce Stephens, but also missed several short and intermediate throws and the offense managed only 17 points. In games started by Jefferson, the Razorbacks were averaging 36.1 points before Saturday.
Perhaps Hornsby could have provided a spark against Liberty, but he hasn’t shown anything over the last few years to indicate it’d be sustainable — especially when the Flames were completely bottling up Arkansas’ rushing attack and making the option game tough with their twists and movement along the defensive line.
Pittman banked on the fact that Jefferson has been a critical part of the Razorbacks’ success since last season and he’d do it again, which eventually did happen with two long touchdown drives on their final two possessions. He came inches away from forcing overtime with a quarterback keeper on a two-point try.
Assessing KJ Jefferson’s Season
There seems to be at least a portion of the Arkansas football fanbase that believes KJ Jefferson hasn’t been nearly as good as he was last year.
However, his numbers have basically been the same, if not better in some cases, despite having a virtually completely new receiving corps that doesn’t include arguably the best wide receiver in school history, Treylon Burks.
|21/4 (13 games)
|17/3 (8 games)
Jefferson is distributing the ball amongst multiple targets while maintaining his excellent accuracy and great deep ball. He’s also still done a good job of keeping the ball out of harm’s way, despite the two interceptions against Liberty.
The first of those didn’t seem to be his fault, as it bounced off Trey Knox’s hands and into the defender’s arms, turning a touchdown in to a turnover. His first interception of the season, against Missouri State, also bounced off Knox’s hands.
If Knox had caught those passes, Jefferson would have two more completions for about 31 yards and a touchdown, plus two fewer interceptions. His passer rating would go from 164.19 to 169.55, which would rank seventh nationally — ahead of the likes of USC’s Caleb Williams and UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson. Even without those adjustments, he’s 11th in the FBS and second in the SEC, behind only Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker.
Beyond the box score, Jefferson is the key to the Arkansas offensive engine. Without him, the Razorbacks almost certainly don’t have the five wins currently on their resume.
Sure, he made the critical mistake of trying to dive into the end zone from the 3-yard line against Texas A&M, resulting in the long fumble return that swung momentum to the Aggies in which looks like a worse and worse loss by the week.
However, Jefferson has also made numerous highlight-reel worthy plays that helped Arkansas win games. Perhaps none were quite as important or as impressive as when he evaded three would-be sacks and completed a key pass that sparked the win at BYU, snapping a three-game skid.
KJ Jefferson Moving Forward
As the Liberty game perfectly illustrated, it’s important for KJ Jefferson to be more involved in practice this week leading up to the Battle for the Boot against No. 7 LSU.
The good news is Sam Pittman said Monday that his star quarterback is already feeling better than he did the previous week, so he should be able to throw in practice and be ready to go Saturday.
However, the nagging shoulder injury he’s been dealing with since before the Texas A&M game is still there and he’ll likely still have to fight through some discomfort.
“It’s really in the clavicle area…it’s bruised,” Pittman said. “It’s hard for him to throw the ball without some type of pain. Like I say, he’s much better than what he was last week. So hopefully we’ll get a good week of practice out of him and go from there.”
Jefferson was seen throwing passes in drills during the short portion of Monday’s practice open to the media, which wasn’t the case last week, so that seems to indicate progress.
If that’s the case and he doesn’t experience any setbacks, expect Jefferson to play every snap once again — as he’s earned the right to do.
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…