FAYETTEVILLE — It won’t be reflected in any recruiting rankings, but the Arkansas football program picked up the equivalent of a five-star commitment with KJ Jefferson’s announcement that he’d return for another season.
After back-to-back solid seasons as the Razorbacks’ starting quarterback and four total years in Fayetteville, there had been speculation the Mississippi native might test the waters of the NFL Draft. Instead, he’ll be back at Arkansas in 2023.
Jefferson shared the news on Instagram with a graphic that added some suspense to the announcement.
“I want to thank God for directing me to Arkansas to start my college career,” KJ Jefferson wrote. “I want to thank my mom for always being there, through good times and bad. I have learned so much from Coach Pittman and Coach Briles on and off the field and can’t thank them enough.
“As for the Arkansas fans, I have always loved playing for you all and the support you have given me is unmatched. With that said, it’s time to fulfill my dreams………..and my dreams wouldn’t be complete without one more year on The Hill.”
It is the second piece of good news the Razorbacks have received regarding their 2023 roster in as many days, as defensive end Jordan Domineck announced on Thursday that he would return as a super senior.
Before those two, most of the announcements were by players leaving the program, either for the NFL Draft (Jadon Haselwood, Ricky Stromberg) or the transfer portal
KJ Jefferson with the Razorbacks
Recruited by the previous coaching staff, KJ Jefferson was a four-star prospect coming out of North Panola High School in Sardis, Miss.
He turned down numerous offers to play for Chad Morris, but ended up starting just one game as a true freshman in 2019 and it came after Morris was fired.
When Sam Pittman was hired after the season, he brought in Feleipe Franks as a transfer from Florida, but Jefferson chose to stick around and serve as the backup. When Franks had to miss the Missouri game because of a rib injury, he was thrust into the starting role again and it went much better than his start at No. 1 LSU a year earlier.
Facing the Tigers, Jefferson accounted for 306 yards and four touchdowns and nearly led the Razorbacks to a dramatic last-second victory. They ended up losing on a field goal as time expired, but it proved to Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles that they had their quarterback of the future.
In his first year as a starter, Jefferson completed 67.3 percent of his passes for 2,676 yards, 21 touchdowns and only four interceptions. He also led the team in rushing with 664 yards and scored six rushing touchdowns.
Despite battling multiple injuries this season, including twice missing a game, and being without his top target from 2021 — first-round pick Treylon Burks — Jefferson has arguably been just as good. In just 10 games, he’s completed 68.3 percent of his passes for 2,361 yards, 22 touchdowns and four interceptions while rushing for 510 yards and seven touchdowns.
According to Pro Football Focus, he posted an 88.0 offensive grade this season. That is the ninth-highest mark among Power Five quarterbacks.
Climbing the Arkansas Football Record Book
Even before playing in the yet-to-be-announced bowl game, KJ Jefferson already ranks among the best quarterbacks in school history in multiple categories.
His 5,529 career passing yards and 46 touchdown passes rank eighth and seventh in UA history, respectively.
The UA doesn’t include career completion percentage in its record book, but his last two seasons currently rank second and third on the single-season list. With a strong showing in the bowl game, Jefferson could increase his 68.3% and surpass Feleipe Franks’ 68.5% in 2020 for the single-season record.
Based on research by Best of Arkansas Sports, Jefferson’s 65.5% career completion percentage is the best all Arkansas quarterbacks who’ve attempted at least 250 passes with the Razorbacks. He’s ahead of the likes of Tyler Wilson (62.6%) and Ryan Mallett (60.3%).
On top of that, our research found that Jefferson takes care of the ball better than any other quarterback in school history. His 5.1 touchdown-to-interception ratio is better than Franks (4.3), Mallett (3.3) and Brandon Allen (2.5).
Jefferson also has a great chance to break the other major Arkansas football records.
Assuming he stays healthy and the Razorbacks make a bowl game next season, he would have an additional 14 starts in an Arkansas uniform. That means he’s need to average just 159.8 passing yards to break Wilson’s all-time record of 7,765. He’s just 19 touchdown passes shy of breaking Allen’s all-time record of 64, as well.
Throw in what Jefferson has done on the ground and what he’s accomplished so far is almost unprecedented. His 1,299 career rushing yards already rank fourth among Arkansas quarterbacks and he’s likely to surpass Ron Calcagni (1,315) in the bowl game. He is also within striking distance of Quinn Grovey’s career total of 1,746, but he probably won’t reach Matt Jones’ 2,535 career rushing yards.
In terms of total offense, Jefferson already ranks sixth in yards (6,828) and fourth in touchdowns (63). He needs just 1,565 more yards and 15 more touchdowns to break those school records, both of which are held by Jones.
What it Means for Arkansas
Beyond the obvious fact that getting KJ Jefferson back gives Arkansas football an experienced and talented quarterback, his decision impacts the Razorbacks in other ways, too.
Had he not returned, Arkansas would likely be in the market for a starting quarterback out of the transfer portal. The only other scholarship quarterback set to be on the 2023 roster is incoming freshman Malachi Singleton, as Malik Hornsby entered the portal after the regular season.
The Razorbacks also have Cade Fortin and Kade Renfro on the team as walk-ons who began their careers on scholarship at Power Five schools, but Fortin did not perform particularly well in his opportunities this season and Renfro has torn his ACL twice in the past year.
Depth is still an issue and Arkansas will probably still try to bring in a quality backup, but it won’t be as big of a deal as if it was looking for a starter.
Having Jefferson on the roster is also big for the development of Singleton, a four-star recruit who Sam Pittman probably views as his quarterback of the future. He can learn from him much like Jefferson learned from Franks while not feeling the pressure of trying to start immediately.
With such a quality quarterback in the fold for 2023, the Razorbacks also have a major selling point for potential transfer wide receivers. It helps that Jadon Haselwood and Matt Landers had such great success as transfers this year, but now those Arkansas goes after in the portal this offseason will know they have a very good quarterback throwing them the ball.
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