FAYETTEVILLE — Once again, Arkansas has a quarterback quandary on its hands.
Any talks of benching KJ Jefferson are an obvious overreaction to the Razorbacks’ back-to-back losses, but there is a lot of talk about the backup job following a 49-26 loss to No. 2 Alabama on Saturday.
When Jefferson left the game after taking a hit to the head midway through the fourth quarter, it was Cade Fortin — not Malik Hornsby — who entered the contest. Jefferson returned for the next play, but was removed for good the following series, at which point Fortin took over.
It’s unclear whether the change was a result of the hit or the score, as it was a 23-point margin with just under seven minutes remaining, but Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman did confirm it was a head injury for Jefferson after the game.
“He hit his head,” Pittman said. “I don’t know. I don’t know where he’s at, to be honest with you. Obviously, we didn’t bring him back in. I don’t know any more than that.”
That news was seemingly secondary to what unfolded afterward, as the decision to go with Fortin over Hornsby came as a surprise to most. Almost immediately, questions sprang from the fan base about Hornsby’s health and availability.
However, Hornsby was dressed out, went through pregame warmups and was on the sideline throughout the game. Pittman confirmed it was a coach’s decision after the game.
“That decision has been made for a while,” Pittman said when asked about the decision. “He’s our No. 2 quarterback, so we put him in there.”
Those two responses, which totaled a combined 51 words, were Pittman’s two shortest answers to the 16 questions he received during a 15-minute postgame press conference.
They’ll undoubtedly be over-analyzed, so Best of Arkansas Sports decided it was best to parse them ourselves and dive into the multiple layers of Arkansas’ backup quarterback situation…
Going With Cade Fortin over Malik Hornsby
Although he came to Arkansas as a walk-on transfer, Cade Fortin is not your average non-scholarship quarterback. He was a four-star recruit on ESPN and signed with North Carolina out of high school before transferring to South Florida.
After making a couple of starts at each school, Fortin entered the portal again and landed with the Razorbacks — who were in desperate need of quarterback depth — for his final two years of eligibility, which includes the pandemic-related bonus year.
Saturday was his Arkansas debut and he went 4 of 10 for 35 yards while adding another 9 yards on a scramble. Fortin led a pair of drives — the first was a three-and-out and the second actually got into the red zone before a turnover on downs.
“It’s fun to have him back there,” right tackle Dalton Wagner said. “There’s times in practice where Coach Pitt will just throw him in a two-minute situation or throw him in third downs or something like that with the ones just to give a give KJ a break and see what Cade can do, and Cade’s excelled every time his number’s been called, and he excelled today.”
It may have been a surprise to those outside the Razorback football program, especially considering Hornsby has been listed as the backup on the UA’s weekly depth chart (more on that in a minute), but it’s been in the works for a while and signs have been there since spring ball.
When Hornsby first started getting reps at wide receiver midway through the spring, Sam Pittman pointed to the staff’s comfort level with Fortin at quarterback as a reason for the flexibility.
Late in fall camp, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles told reporters that Jefferson was leading the quarterbacks in completion percentage, but Fortin “is right behind him and Malik Hornsby is behind him.” He also praised the transfer for his accuracy and intelligence.
“He knows exactly what’s happening on defense, where the ball needs to go, and he does it in a fast way,” Briles said. “He gets the ball out of his hands. A lot of times pressure can get to you, and it doesn’t really get to him because he knows exactly where the ball should go, and he’s accurate when he’s doing it.”
Asked specifically about Fortin pushing Hornsby for the backup job later in the interview, Briles gave a non-answer.
“Both those guys, I feel like, we definitely trust on the field, and they’re both a little different,” Briles said. “Cade can move around a little bit, but he’s a guy that can get back there and deal the ball, and then obviously with Malik and his speed and what he does to the defense with plus-one game and still being able to throw the football down the field, we feel really good about both those guys if they’re called upon.”
Since then, there have been other signs of Fortin overtaking the No. 2 spot, such as Hornsby’s usage as a wide receiver. He played 11 snaps at the position in each of Arkansas’ first two games and was left vulnerable to injury, once again implying the staff’s confidence in Fortin’s ability.
“Certainly at the quarterback spot, Fortin is playing really well,” Pittman said on the Wednesday between the Cincinnati and South Carolina games. “So it allows us to do that a little bit more.”
For at least two of the last three weeks, Fortin received the second-team reps at quarterback in a brief team period during the 15-20 minutes of practice the media is allowed to view.
However, that can sometimes be a red herring. It is what the team calls “fastball starts” and consists of only three or four plays with the first-team offense against the first-team defense, followed by three or four plays with the second units. The staff regularly rotates players in and out, so it’s not uncommon for players like Drew Sanders, Jadon Haselwood or other sure-fire starters to be held out. Last year, Treylon Burks rarely — if ever — participated in the period.
In hindsight, though, Fortin getting those reps over Hornsby was a precursor to what happened Saturday against Alabama.
Arkansas Football’s Worthless Depth Chart
A lot was made about the fact that Malik Hornsby is listed as the backup quarterback on Arkansas football’s official depth chart, which is released in the UA’s weekly game notes each Monday.
However, to put it bluntly, that depth chart is worthless. Let us explain…
Since Sam Pittman’s arrival, and even with previous head coaches, the depth chart has been a decent starting point at the beginning of the season, but no changes are made to it until after the change is made in a game.
For example, safety Jalen Catalon was still listed as a starter on the South Carolina depth chart, despite having suffered a season-ending injury the week before and nickel back Myles Slusher was never removed from the depth chart, even though he missed a pair of games with an injury. Heck, LaDarrius Bishop suffered a season-ending injury against South Carolina and is STILL listed as a backup cornerback.
It’s not just Pittman being coy with injuries, either. The depth chart for the Cincinnati game listed Dwight McGlothern as a co-backup behind Hudson Clark, but he ended up starting opposite of Clark. More recently, Malik Chavis started two games before he was finally listed as the sole starter ahead of Clark this week.
When Pittman told reporters that Cade Fortin has been the No. 2 quarterback “for a while,” he’s probably not lying and it likely wasn’t a surprise to those on the team, including Hornsby. There just hadn’t been an instance that required Arkansas showing who its backup really was until Saturday, so there was no reason for the UA to make the change on the depth chart.
In short, if Arkansas – or any school, for that matter – isn’t forced to show its hand when it comes to the rotation, it won’t. Some have eliminated depth charts all together.
What it Means for Malik Hornsby
He may have been dressed out and available to play, but Malik Hornsby did not appear to be very engaged with the game Saturday night.
When Cade Fortin was in the game and the offense was on the south end of the field, Hornsby was alone on the north end of the sideline. He spent time on a stationary bike and at one point even went over to high-five a fan.
One reporter even saw Hornsby attempt to remove his pads on the sideline, only for Taurean Carter – who’s currently out with an injury – to stop him from doing so. He was also the first Arkansas player to leave the field after the game.
Speculation surrounding an impending transfer has only increased since Hornsby has seemingly scrubbed his Instagram account of any reference to Arkansas.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise, as he’s already entered the portal once before. He announced his decision about a week after the Outback Bowl win, in which he ran for 67 yards on four carries, only to remove his name a week later.
Sam Pittman, who had previously taken a hard stance against allowing players back, said part of the agreement to let him rejoin the team involved him getting some work at wide receiver if he couldn’t surpass KJ Jefferson for the starting job. The Razorbacks implemented that package midway through spring ball.
There was quite a bit of talk about him making noise at the new position over the next couple of weeks, but it virtually disappeared over the course of fall camp. It randomly reemerged, at least during the media viewing periods, in the week leading up to the opener against Cincinnati.
Over the first two games of the season, Hornsby was essentially fifth in the Razorbacks’ pecking order at wide receiver behind the starting trio – Jadon Haselwood, Matt Landers and Warren Thompson – and Ketron Jackson Jr.
Not only that, but good things happened when he touched the ball. Against Cincinnati, he made a wise decision to keep it on what appeared to be a double pass and picked up 13 yards. The next week against South Carolina, he had an 8-yard run and 9-yard reception.
However, he followed that up by getting only one snap against Missouri State and three against Texas A&M. The latter of those proved disastrous, as they came on consecutive plays and each failed, stalling a promising drive that looked like it would put the Razorbacks up 21-0. A case could certainly be made for Jefferson’s fumble on the next drive, but the Hornsby sequence was arguably the moment that helped the Aggies dig back in and ultimately win 23-21.
Hornsby hasn’t seen the field since. On top of not getting the second-team quarterback reps, he also didn’t get any action at wide receiver in the Alabama loss – despite Thompson missing the game with an injury. Outside of the starters, Jaedon Wilson was the only wide receiver who played and he dropped a critical third-down pass that would have moved the chains.
Couple that lack of usage with his body language on the sideline, and the writing appears to be on the wall for Hornsby. However, when exactly a potential departure might happen remains to be seen.
The NCAA recently approved portal windows and the transfer portal won’t reopen until the day after the College Football Playoff field is announced sometime after the conference championship games on Dec. 3.
If Hornsby leaves before then, he’ll essentially just be quitting the team, similar to reserve running back Javion Hunt. Teams won’t be able to contact Hunt until he goes into the portal during that window, and it would be the same for Hornsby if he takes that route.
UPDATE: Malik Hornsby Speaks
With speculation about his future running rampant on social media, Malik Hornsby issued a statement via Twitter on Sunday afternoon. The quarterback put it plainly that he, in fact, was not leaving the team.
“I never said I was leaving so can y’all please stop with the false information,” Hornsby wrote, while adding a “#wps” hashtag and two Razorback emojis.
What it Means for Arkansas vs Mississippi State
The Razorbacks didn’t sign a quarterback in the 2022 class and their 2021 signee, Lucas Coley, entered the portal during spring ball, so there are clear long-term ramifications if Malik Hornsby opts to leave.
However, there are also short-term issues Arkansas must address before worrying about that. Most notably, KJ Jefferson’s status is up in the air for next week’s game at Mississippi State.
It would be reckless to speculate about the nature of the injury, but there is no doubt that he is injured. Not only did Sam Pittman mention he “hit his head,” but Jefferson was not brought in to postgame interviews.
That is notable because, unlike some schools, the UA has been great about making Jefferson available to the media after every game, win or lose and regardless of how he performed. That said, the UA also has a policy against bringing injured players to the podium, so his absence all but confirms he is hurt in some way.
Pittman’s weekly Monday press conference could reveal more details, as will Monday’s practice viewing period for the media, but if KJ Jefferson is unavailable, it seems as though Fortin will get the nod and start a game for his third different team.
Regardless of who’s under center, the Razorbacks will need a better passing attack than they had against the Crimson Tide. Pittman wasn’t shy about his displeasure with that area of the game afterward.
“We always try to establish the run to throw play-action off of it, but we just…we either weren’t getting open or we weren’t throwing it accurately,” Pittman said. “We came off the field, we couldn’t stay on the field.”
Kickoff against Mississippi State is scheduled for 11 a.m. CT next Saturday. The game, which the Bulldogs will host in Starkville, Miss., is set to air on the SEC Network.
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