In football, the head coach generally gets the most cheers in the best of times while suffering the sharpest barbs in the worst of times. Whoever mans the quarterback position isn’t too far behind, however. That’s why it’s easy to look at the last two Arkansas football games and put the lion’s share of blame for the losses on the guy who takes the snaps.
A banged-up KJ Jefferson didn’t play up to his standards for a half against Liberty, and by the time he heated up, it was just a bit too little, too late.
Then, against LSU, Jefferson’s backup Malik Hornsby put up one of the most underwhelming performances from a starting Razorback quarterback in the 21st century. He completed 4 of 9 passes for 24 yards and sputtered out a measly 2.7 rushing average thanks to 3 sacks including a backward, stumbling mess of a futile attempt to stay upright.
Lack of Razorback Quarterback Development
At this point, it’s clear that Malik Hornsby won’t be the Razorbacks’ long-term answer at the quarterback position. What so many fans don’t understand is how the junior doesn’t appear to have advanced in the last three years despite keeping the same head coach and offensive coordinator.
“Outside of just the electric athletic ability, his development at the quarterback position has been next to none,” former Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner said on The Buzz 103.7 FM. “It’s very similar to the same kid that I saw in high school, and it’s frustrating.”
“It’s frustrating to watch a kid not be able to execute an offense from the pocket, and we’re talking about just throwing the screen again accurately, throwing the quick game accurately, getting a good pre-snap read. He struggles with some of the very, very simple parts of playing the quarterback position, and it’s frustrating to watch, especially when it’s my Razorbacks.”
Mike Irwin of Pig Trail Nation agrees that Hornsby’s technique could use work. Some of that doesn’t even involve the passing game.
“Track speed is not football speed,” Irwin said on “Ask Mike.” “What I’ve seen from him all along is a guy that doesn’t cut well. He doesn’t cut sharply,” he added, referring to how Hornsby’s cuts on take more time to execute because they appear curved instead of at sharp angles.
“He’s not the runner that everybody thought he was,” Irwin added. “Every once in a while, he’ll get into a situation where he’s got an open, straight line or a little bit of a curve, and he’ll take off and get you 10 or 15 yards, but he doesn’t cut that well.”
Hornsby’s lack of development is all the more perplexing because offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ did have a good track record of developing backup quarterbacks at previous stops like Baylor and Florida Atlantic. And he did a fantastic job of bringing KJ Jefferson along as a redshirt freshman under Feleipe Franks in 2020.
Irwin and Stoerner also know it’s not accurate to put all the blame for Arkansas’ offensive struggles on Hornsby. “I don’t want to get on Malik too much,” Irwin said. “I don’t think he was what they thought he was going to be, but in this game it wasn’t just him.”
What Most Disappoints about Arkansas Football
Stoerner didn’t flinch about what disappoints him more than the Hogs not having a backup quarterback ready to go in Jefferson’s absence.
Earlier this season, he was very impressed by the offensive line’s ability to get push up front and road grade for backs like Rocket Sanders. Recently, however, he’s seen a line that has lost that push and tenacity to finish plays.
“For whatever reason, this offensive line has in the last two or three games appeared to be timid, appeared to be not ready to play, appeared to lack physicality, and those are all things that I hoped were behind us when Pittman took the job and Cody Kennedy came in there and is absolutely slaying it,” he said in an interview with Justin Acri and Wess Moore.
“You thought the one thing you could hang your hat on is being better than most of your SEC opponents up front, and that’s just not been the case.”
Arkansas’ senior-heavy offensive line gets one more chance to leave on a good note on Saturday night against Ole Miss. As relatively uninspired as they have played as of late, they have all the incentive in the world to show out on Senior Night. On top of that, they can stop the bleeding on what’s developed into a three-game home losing streak after losses to Alabama, Liberty and LSU.
Against LSU, Arkansas offensive tackle Luke Jones said the Tigers’ loading of the box and constant blitzing wreaked havoc, but “we’ve got to be better as a unit, as an o-line of going five for five together. It’s tough when you’re going four for five when one guy might get on the edge of a block. We’ve got to be better about this this week, of staying together as a unit. Staying together five for five.”
Dalton Wagner Back
Against Ole Miss, the line will get a senior captain back in tackle Dalton Wagner. Against Liberty, Wagner appeared hampered and then missed last week because of injury. Now, however, he says he’s “feeling great” and “back 100%.”
Looking at the Rebels, Wagner sees a defensive line that has sound rushers on the edge, but is strongest in its “ability on the interior to push the pocket back. That nose guard [JJ Pegues] in there, he’s a big dude. He’s really strong, too. And where they create problems is they try to mess with your mike points, and they try to push the pocket back so it shortens the edges for the tackles. Because as you push the pocket back, the tackles have to try to keep the width of it.”
“And if the edge rushers are as good as they are, they’re able to bend that edge and collapse it on top of the quarterback who’s in there. But, I think it’s going to be key this week that the interior holds up and that the tackles can keep the width of the pocket as well too.”
A common line of thinking among Arkansas fans is a healthy KJ Jefferson will help save the day for the Hogs vs Ole Miss, but his health will be for naught if Dalton Wagner and his crew don’t snap out of it and get back to doing what they do best.
More from Irwin on Hornsby starting at 6:00 below: