My overall review of the debut of Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ last season was a mixed bag. Obviously, the offense was much better. How could it not be after following the disaster that was the Chad Morris offense that never did ‘Hammer down.’
The Hogs were finally up-tempo and explosive at times with veteran Florida graduate transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks triggering the unit and the breakout of former Warren star Treylon Burks.
Kendal Briles’ Arkansas Football Debut
On the flip side, Briles tried to be too “cute” at times, and it seemed whenever he dialed up a gadget play, it was at the wrong time.
You may recall the the poorly executed trick plays, for instance, he called in the 2020 season opener against Georgia – in particularly, a double reverse from the UA 14 that led to a safety and nearly could have been a fumble recovery for touchdown for the Bulldogs, and a reverse pass using Treylon Burks as the thrower to a well-covered Mike Woods downfield with an attempt that should have never left his hand.
Against Georgia, Arkansas’ offense had no hope of hanging with the Bulldogs in the second half. But in the games that followed it appeared that Feleipe Franks’ savvy helped save the offense at times.
With Franks departed, the spotlight will shift to new starter sophomore K.J. Jefferson. Expect it to intensify on Briles, too. Fall camp, which started this week, will go a long way to building a rapport that will be needed to ensure one of the team’s question marks — how will KJ Jefferson will perform as the main attraction— becomes solid. I say that only because Jefferson is a new starter.
A good sign for Arkansas football fans is that the Mississippi native has the backing of his teammates.
“Just the way he came in last year … when Feleipe [Franks] came in, it was like anybody could have been down and thought, ‘Oh, this was my year,’ but he never had that attitude,” sophomore standout safety Jalen Catalon said at Arkansas media day Thursday. “He just came in ready to work and was a sponge.”
No doubt, it helped Jefferson to watch the older Franks operate the new system that Briles employed in his under first-year Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman. Jefferson will spend the next month getting even more acclimated with the nuances and comfortable taking the first-team snaps.
Unlike last year with COVID-19 protocols, this Arkansas football camp will not be abbreviated. That’s a big plus. Probably the most important thing for Jefferson is to have confidence in Kendal Briles and gain trust in the coach to open things up in his RPO schemes, which can showcase Jefferson’s explosive athleticism.
The mental and emotional parts of this relationship are just as important as the physical components like Jefferson improving his passing accuracy and making good decisions while passing the ball.
Briles most likely feels much more confident about his offense after running it for a season. Installing that offense with a rebuilding team during a pandemic is a tall order. The unit as a whole, including a veteran offensive line and dangerous tailback Trelon Smith, should be confident with the offense. That’s great news for a first-year starter like Jefferson.
What will be the test for Kendal Briles is tailoring the scheme to fit Jefferson’s traits. He is a true dual-threat quarterback, unlike Franks, so Briles should dial up more more designed run plays and draws and capturing more ‘gotcha moments’ like he tried to last year. A draw on a 3rd-and-9 halfback pass back to Jefferson, etc.
Pull those strings at the right times to keep the defense guessing. There is a dynamic guy back there, but he has to be put in the right position to make big plays. Eventually, he may be able to call his own number, but that may not happen immediately. He will rely on adept play calling.
“The offense has opened up a lot with the scheme that we’re running and the tempo we’ve installed, the offense with be a lot more open to drop backs or QB runs, depending on what the defense is doing,” Jefferson said after the spring game.
“Every quarterback in our quarterback room can make plays with their feet, so they may load the box and then we can throw the ball over the top of them. The playbook has opened up a lot more than when Feleipe was here.
A Sample of KJ Jefferson’s Magic
We got a sampling last season of what could happen if the two are on the same page when Franks was injured and couldn’t play in the regular-season finale at Missouri last season. Jefferson completed 18 of 33 passes for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns with 13 rushes for 32 yards.
He orchestrated a late drive that gave Arkansas a 48-47 lead after a two-point conversion pass to Mike Woods, but the Tigers countered with a drive of their own and a game-winning field goal.
It let me know I can be a factor in this league,” Jefferson said of the Missouri game, in which he backed up trash talk vs the Tigers from his high school days. “I can dominate this league and be the best I can be in this league to help my team win.
“Being the quarterback and winning respect from my team, I felt like I did a pretty good job.”
Arkansas football receiver Treyon Burks said Thursday: “I’m 100% confident in KJ. That’s my boy. We’re basically like blood. For him to come in to the Missouri game and show us what we could do, that showed a lot to us. I know it showed the defense and the offense that he’s capable of leading this team.”
Pittman made tremendous progress in his first season considering the dumpster fire he inherited. Defensive coordinator Barry Odom breathed life into his unit, and Burks and the offense looked like a real unit with improved play from the offensive line.
The Hogs are ready to take another step this year which should be a bowl game with a very manageable nonconference slate. Beating an overrated Texas team in Fayetteville will go a long way to ensuring a 4-0 nonconference record and then picking up two SEC wins. It’s very possible.
However, most would agree Jefferson’s performance could be the X-factor. Kendal Briles helped put him in a great position to win the Missouri game, but some of Briles’ best play calling came late in the season last year. He’ll need to pick up his play calling game right out of the gates for the Jefferson and the Arkansas offense to set the state on fire in September.
Read our latest column, from Nate Allen, here:
Hear KJ Jefferson talk about the first fall practice of the 2021 Arkansas football season here.
At nearly 250 pounds, he is looking like the strongest dude to ever line up behind center in a Razorback uniform.