Heading into this Arkansas football season, it seemed like the plan was to use Arkansas’ deeper QB room to spell KJ Jefferson some and prevent the kind of injuries that cost the Hogs games in 2022.
Arkansas, after all, had what on paper looked like better subs with fourth-year Jacolby Criswell and talented true freshman Malachi Singleton alongside the returning Cade Fortin.
Plus, according to Pittman, Criswell looked awfully sharp in fall camp. And yet, week after week as the six-game SEC losing streak mounted, not a single snap went to any quarterback other than Jefferson. Even in the fifth-year senior’s worst game of the season two weeks ago vs Mississippi State. Indeed, after the game, Pittman insisted he didn’t consider taking Jefferson out.
In the days leading up to Jefferson’s star turn in a 39-36 OT win, things along this front appeared to be changing. In a Wednesday press conference, Pittman said the team planned to use the 6’1″, 228 pound Singleton somewhere on the field “not as a quarterback necessarily right now” but perhaps on special teams “because he’s very talented. Big athlete.”
A few hours later, on his coach’s show, Pittman said that Criswell has been getting “extra reps” in practice since Kenny Guiton took over as interim offensive coordinator.
KJ Jefferson is apparently fine with this. On Sunday, “we called all the quarterbacks and he handled it really well and just went to work,” Pittman said on “Sam Pittman Live.” “He’s an older guy who understands that it’s a people business, but it is a business.”
New Possible Direction for Arkansas Football
Had Jefferson struggled more against vs Florida in Guiton’s likely more up tempo scheme, it would have have been a surprise to see Criswell step in for a series to try to breathe life into the offense. Although Jefferson looked a bit off early on, Guiton decided to keep his star quarterback in and that paid as Jefferson racked up 255 pass yards and 92 rushing yards, many of which came in crunch time in the fourth quarter.
Still, some wonder why Criswell never got a shot in the previous weeks when Jefferson was struggling and not looking like his old self.
It appears that some of those who have practiced against Jefferson and Criswell for months felt that in certain times the latter would have done better. “I’m not trying to be controversial, but I talked with a parent of a player over the weekend,” Pig Trail Nation’s Mike Irwin said last week on “Ask Mike.” “I got the very distinct impression that some of the defensive players….feel like Criswell is better in certain situations.”
This was an opinion, however, expressed when the offense was under Enos, not Guiton. And when “certain situations” entail an offensive linemen failing to pick up head-hunting quarterback rushers, it really doesn’t matter who’s back there. They are going to be in big trouble regardless.
New and rejuvenated attitudes aside, can Arkansas’s offensive line somehow manage a 180-degree turn in performance and start sustaining run blocks and giving adequate pass blocking — with help from running backs and tight ends, too — to allow Jefferson time to be the Jefferson of old? Was Enos’ system so ridiculously complicated that the Hogs could do nothing right, and would a significant reduction of playbook with more practice time devoted to what they CAN do right make a difference now?
The early returns look good, Arkansas racked up 481 yards overall at Florida.
Jefferson did a lot of his damage with his legs and a couple of huge pass plays to Andrew Armstrong and seemed a bit sharper with issues with an issue that had haunted him for much of the season: making pre-snap reads quickly enough* and locking onto certain receivers far too long and failing to see some open options. It looks like the fresh start with a new coordinator may make a huge difference in November, though. As Irwin sees it, the offensive dysfunction seen in the Mississippi State game was in large part due to some of the players on that side of the ball essentially mailing it in.
Heading into that 7-3 Mississippi State loss, Enos and the offense had worked on a lot of plays in practice that the players were hopeful to use when the time was right. Instead, after Arkansas’ initial interception, Arkansas stalled yet again in the red zone. “All of a sudden, the play calling went back to that same old red zone stuff: run, run, throw on third-and-8, or third-and-6,” Irwin said on this week’s “Ask Mike” show.
According to Irwin’s insiders, “that’s when KJ just said, ‘It’s never going to change.'”
“And he checked it in and everybody else checked it in. And then after the game, Pittman knew for the first time, ‘Yeah, they’re tired of this.’ And then he said he stepped in and made a change.”
One game in, it looks like Dan Enos’ departure is just what the doctor ordered to unleash the Jefferson of old.
KJ Jefferson’s Troubles with Pre-Snap Reads
*Having played for the Hogs at the height of the Bobby Petrino era, former Arkansas football star DJ Williams knows good, cerebral offense. Before the Florida game, what he had seen from Jefferson sitting in the the press box where he watches games does not fully qualify as that. Especially since, from his vantage, he often caught critical details from defenses that Jefferson was failing to spot.
“There are some things I see from rotation from the defensive backfield where I know three, four seconds before the ball’s snapped where the pressure’s coming from,” he said on the latest episode of 4th & 5. “It’s just sometimes obvious what the defense is trying to do.”
Jefferson, however, wasn’t quick enough in recognizing what the safeties across the field from him are going to do, as Williams sees it. That led to him unnecessarily going through progressions that the safeties’ pre-snap movement had already taken off the table – and wasting time that could have otherwise been used to get the ball out to a realistic target by immediately going to later options in his progression.
Many of the sacks Jefferson has endured could have been avoided if he’d passed the ball earlier from understanding the rotation of safeties and the where the resulting pressure would come from.
“I just don’t think pre-snap, he sometimes gets that yet, which is another hard thing for me to wrap my mind around at that level,” Williams continued. “In SEC play, you should at least know that.”
In Arkansas vs Florida, Jefferson completed 20 of his 31 passes and looked sharper in the critical fourth quarter. He not only correctly read when to skip through his progression on a few throws, but also made the right calls on run plays and scrambles up the gut of the defense. His decision making in the run game ultimately made the difference in the game.
For more of Williams’ thoughts on KJ Jefferson’s play and draftability, go to 24:10 below.
He begins his take with “I don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings….”
Mike Irwin talks more about the Razorbacks turning on Enos starting at 25:10 below:
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