STARKVILLE, Miss. — For the first time since he became the starter, Arkansas was without quarterback KJ Jefferson on Saturday.
The redshirt junior had started each of the Razorbacks last 18 games, and 20 total in his career, before missing their 40-17 blowout loss to No. 23 Mississippi State at Davis Wade Stadium with a presumed concussion.
Head coach Sam Pittman has danced around labeling the injury as such, but told reporters after the game that he was “pretty sure” Jefferson wouldn’t play by Thursday, when he had a “mild headache.”
Even though he was part of Arkansas’ 70-man travel roster and participated in pregame warmups, there was never any intention for Jefferson to get on the field against the Bulldogs. It was a decision Pittman and head athletic trainer Dave Polanski were in agreement on.
“Let’s say this, I think he could have done the physical activity on Friday and got cleared and played today, but he hadn’t practiced. I mean, he had but it was (individual drills). He hadn’t practiced a whole lot and to be perfectly honest with you it just wasn’t worth it to me and I didn’t want to put him out there.”
Jefferson watched the game from the sideline and was never spotted with his helmet on. Instead, the Razorbacks had to rely on backup quarterbacks Cade Fortin and Malik Hornsby. The only other quarterbacks on the roster — Kade Renfro and Rykar Acebo — did not make the trip.
Decision to Start Cade Fortin
As expected, walk-on transfer Cade Fortin got the nod, becoming just the third non-scholarship player — current or former — to start a game at quarterback for Arkansas in the SEC era. Since 1992, the only others were AJ Derby against Rutgers in 2013 and Jack Lindsey against Missouri in 2019, the latter of which had already earned a scholarship before his start.
It was not a particularly surprising move because Fortin, who had stops at North Carolina and South Florida as a scholarship quarterback, came off the bench when Jefferson went down a week before against Alabama.
After that game, Pittman revealed Fortin had been the No. 2 quarterback “for a while” and he maintained his spot on the depth chart throughout this week of practice leading up to the Mississippi State game.
“Well, Fortin basically in practice had won that job,” Pittman said. “That was the decision there. He had a really good week. Certainly, there’s a difference in playing somebody’s first team and a scout team. Our scout team is a little depleted as well right now with all the injuries that we have.”
Pittman added that he believed the Razorbacks would be able to pass the ball better with Fortin in the game, but he ended up completing just 2 of 6 for 8 yards. That came just a week after he was 4 of 10 for 35 yards against the Crimson Tide. At his previous stops, Fortin completed just 50.4 percent of his passes for 5.0 yards per attempt.
Pressed for specific things Fortin showed in practice that led to him overtaking Hornsby on the depth chart and earning the start Saturday, Pittman pointed to Fortin’s better passing ability.
“He took care of the ball better,” Pittman said. “In all honesty, I thought going into the game, if we could turn around and hand the ball to our backs and run the ball, I thought Fortin could pick them apart. Certainly, I don’t know if that could have come or not because our protection wasn’t there. Sometimes you plan on one thing and it doesn’t work. I’m not disappointed at all in Cade. I’m not, but that’s how he won the job.”
Malik Hornsby Provides Spark
Although Cade Fortin did complete a third-down pass to move the chains on Arkansas’ first possession, that was the only first down it achieved with him at quarterback.
The Razorbacks didn’t waste much time before giving Malik Hornsby a chance, inserting him on their second drive.
“We thought because we had a hard time early in the game protecting, we thought maybe we could put Malik in there and get on the edge a little more,” Pittman said, “because they were firing at us up the middle with some of their blitzes and we thought maybe we could get away from some of that with and also use his running ability, which we knew that we were going to do.”
He was immediately behind the sticks thanks to a false start, but he took his first snap 52 yards down to the Mississippi State 28-yard line. He read a play perfectly, kept the ball and bolted around the right end and down the sideline.
“That’s nothing new for him,” wide receiver Jadon Haselwood said. “He’s a speedy guy. So plays like that are kind of regular to us. The world’s just kind of seeing it today.”
Not only did he give the Razorbacks their longest run of the season, topping a 47-yard scamper by Rocket Sanders earlier in the year, but his presence on the field seemed to give the entire offense a boost.
Hornsby had to come out briefly after taking a hard hit, but he was back on the field for the next series. He completed a 21-yard Ketron Jackson Jr., only to come out a couple plays later and Fortin throw an incomplete pass on a third-and-10 play. That was the final time Fortin saw the field.
“When Malik came in there, obviously he took off on the long run and we went down and scored,” Pittman said. “It gave us a spark, so for the most part he played the rest of the game. … We weren’t disappointed in Cade, it’s just Malik had brought us a spark throwing and running.”
Assessing Hornsby’s Performance
Although he wasn’t specifically asked about Arkansas football, Mississippi State head coach Mike Leach opened his postgame press conference by heaping praise upon Hornsby.
The long-time head coach said Hornsby “might be the fastest quarterback in the conference” and that he was “hard to tackle.”
“I think the quarterback’s really good, kind of a stud,” Leach said. “Well he’s really fast, a guy that can get all of it if you don’t keep a lid on him, and then he keeps it alive long enough that your coverage breaks down. Maybe not perfectly accurate, but he can throw it forever, so I thought that guy played really well.”
Accuracy has always been a knock on Hornsby, as offensive coordinator Kendal Briles said he was behind both KJ Jefferson and Cade Fortin in fall camp from an efficiency standpoint, but he threw the ball pretty well.
He ended up completing just 8 of 17, which is under 50 percent, but he started out 7 of 10. He had 234 yards through the air, including a gorgeous 54-yard touchdown strike to Bryce Stephens, and six of his eight completions were for 18 or more yards.
It’s also worth noting that Hornsby’s final two passes were intercepted. The first came on fourth down when he didn’t have anyone open and tried to force a pass that wasn’t there. He could have put more air under the second pass, as Warren Thompson was open in the end zone, but cornerback Emmanuel Forbes also made a tremendous play to catch it.
“I thought he was a little more accurate today than he has been in practice and things,” Pittman said. “The short ones still gave us a little bit of trouble, but I thought for the first time that he played a tremendous amount of ball…I thought he did a really, really nice job.”
Pittman agreed that Hornsby showed he was a “gamer” with the performance, but teammates Jadon Haselwood and Dalton Wagner didn’t necessarily like the term because they believed he’s always had the talent.
“Cade obviously won the job in practice, but things weren’t working out, so they threw Malik in and he did what he had to do,” Haselwood said. “So yeah, he would technically be a gamer. Even though he’s talented anyway.”
Of course, Hornsby also had 114 yards on just eight carries. It was the most rushing yards by an Arkansas quarterback since Matt Jones ran for 126 yards against Ole Miss in 2004.
On top of the numbers beside his name on the box score, Hornsby also ran the huddle well and was under control.
“Calm, cool, collected, no matter what’s going on,” Wagner said. “He’s making sure checks are in order, making sure our spots are right. It’s important to communicate to a young quarterback as well so he can understand where he’s hot, where we’re sliding to, or where we’re trying to run the ball and what we’re leaving for him to read. But overall, he handled it like a pro today.”
Pittman said he believes Jefferson should be cleared to return full-go in practice Monday, which would make him available to play next week at BYU, but Hornsby might have regained his backup job with Saturday’s outing.
Watch Sam Pittman’s Q&A with reporters after Saturday’s loss:
More coverage of Arkansas football from BoAS…