Taking the Bubble Wrap Off KJ Jefferson Helped Save Hogs But Watch Out for What’s Next

KJ Jefferson, Arkansas football, Arkansas vs Kent State
photo credit: Arkansas Athletics

Sports social media has a bit of a running bit: On-Pace Guy. 

On-Pace Guy, usually an influencer of some kind who wants to appear more statistically inclined than he really is, remarks that a particular team or a particular player is on track to achieve Total-X in whatever particular statistic or record being mentioned. The bit, which annoys and frustrates many when it’s brought forth early in seasons. Because, really, who cares.

Let’s make an exception in Arkansas football’s case, though. Today, anyway. 

The Razorbacks simply cannot continue doing what they’ve done through two games and expect to reach the eight-win threshold that lots of locals think is a distinct possibility, what with the easiest – relatively – schedule Arkansas has had in a decade or longer.

Arkansas vs Kent State Was Bookies’ Embarrassment

Arkansas’ 28-6 win over Kent State in Week 2 was not exactly the stuff of legends. Bookies and betting sites across the country had the Hogs tabbed as five-touchdown-or-more favorites. Sometimes much more than five touchdowns. And that was even knowing that preseason All-American running back Rocket Sanders wouldn’t be in uniform as he nursed a knee injury.

Instead, Arkansas logged a grand total of 308 yards of offense and scored three offensive touchdowns against a team pegged to finish last in the Mid-American Conference, a league already near the bottom of the FBS hierarchy. In fact, other than Arkansas’ defense looking the part of SEC Team-vs-MAC bottom-feeder, the Razorbacks were bad.

KJ Jefferson did enough, tossing two touchdowns on 13 of 19 passing for 136 yards, to ensure Arkansas vs Kent State was never in real doubt. Razorbacks offensive coordinator Dan Enos has yet to truly unleash his game-changing quarterback, which is fair considering Arkansas’ first two opponents are not the dangerous type, and that may account for part of the mediocre output so far. The Razorbacks, through two games against an FCS opponent and perhaps the worst team in FBS, are averaging 339.5 yards of total offense. That mark, by Saturday’s conclusion, will probably place Arkansas in the 90s or perhaps even the 100s nationally. For the record, there are 131 teams in college football’s top division.

Jefferson is (wait for it) on-pace for 354 yards rushing this season. For an average quarterback, such a number is decent. Good, even. For Jefferson, it’s barely over half of what he has registered in each of the last two seasons. Sanders, whose 1,443 yards rushing last year ranked him 13th in the country, had just 42 yards in Arkansas’ season-opener. And he may miss next week’s game against a real opponent, too (sorry, Western Carolina and Kent State).

KJ Jefferson Limited on Purpose

In other words, the Razorbacks’ offense isn’t good right now and it isn’t likely to ever reach the expected heights after last year’s explosion. If it doesn’t, those eight wins, man, they ain’t coming.

Enos and Arkansas football Sam Pittman have purposefully limited Jefferson’s designed rushes. He missed two games last year because of injury and Arkansas lost both, marred by poor quarterback play in each. Jacolby Criswell transferred in from North Carolina to serve as Jefferson’s back-up this year and he should provide more than either Malik Hornsby or Cade Fortin did last year. 

But that’s not a chance Arkansas really wants to take, and frankly, it’s not what the NFL scouts really want to see from Jefferson either. The scouts want to see more of the kind of intermediate route dimes like the 36-yard laser he dropped right into the hands of Isaac Teslaa in the first half.

But the Arkansas football staff could only minimize their risk so much against Kent State, however. Arkansas’ offense simply couldn’t do much without their quarterback taking control. Jefferson carried the ball 13 times, was sacked two more and battered around on other drop-backs, too, even if he occasionally somehow injured the Golden Flash defender tackling him in return.

That’s a lot of damage for a player Arkansas should keep in bubble-wrap until the difficult part of the schedule hits. 

“We had runs for KJ but most of them were strictly for short-yardage type situations,” Pittman said. “We were ready for that. Obviously we didn’t want to have to go to that, if that makes sense. We were missing blocks. Any type of movement bothered us.”

Arkansas Football’s Real Issue

Arkansas’ strength last year was that it could come at teams in waves. Jefferson. Sanders. AJ Green. Rashod Dubinion. Early on, even Dominique Johnson. Just boom-boom-boom. That hasn’t been the case this year. It’s actually been a detriment. Green ran for 82 yards on 15 carries against Kent State. Not bad, considering his status as the team’s No. 3 back each of the last two seasons and a modest positive if Sanders ends up having to miss more time than expected because of his wonky knee. Dubinion scored a touchdown Saturday, too, but he has just 49 yards in two games. Dominique Johnson? Twenty-two yards.

The struggles aren’t entirely on the running backs. Arkansas’ offensive line has looked, at best, equal to the defensive lines they’ve gone up against in the first two weeks. Again: Western Carolina and Kent State. Pittman, who made his name as one of the country’s best offensive line coaches, isn’t thrilled with his guys up front. He rotated them more than usual against Kent State, searching for a combination that could dominate.

“I’m trying to find more than 22 guys,” Pittman said. “I know who we have. I’m trying to find out how many guys we can win with. We’ve had the greatest opportunity in America to do that with Western Carolina and Kent State. We’re 2-0. I’m trying to find who we can win in the SEC with.”

They can win with Jefferson. But only if he’s upright. And while Arkansas might be unbeaten right now, On-Pace Guy portends a dangerous future.

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