When I was in elementary school, in the early 2000s, my best friend had the below Arkansas football poster in his garage. For some odd reason, it has stuck with me for all of these years:
The premise was that certain characteristics from Arkansas football legends would be combined to create “the Ultimate Razorback.”
Things like Darren McFadden’s vision, Steve Atwater’s tenacity, Frank Broyles’ leadership, Brandon Burlsworth’s heart and Matt Jones’ elusiveness are the kinds of characteristics we are talking about.
Each Arkansas legend listed was individually great in their time with Arkansas football. You could make a strong case that any of them embodied “the Ultimate Razorback” portrayed in the poster.
If you were to look for an Arkansas football player today who evokes that same spirit, look no further than quarterback KJ Jefferson.
Through everything the football program has gone through since he arrived in 2019, Jefferson has never wavered. In this age of young stars wanting immediate shine, he spent the 2020 season backing up grad transfer Feleipe Franks, knowing that his opportunity would come.
Mental toughness is a characteristic that the “Ultimate Razorback” would need to exhibit, and Jefferson has shown how mentally tough he is.
When Jefferson was named the starter entering the 2021 season, he was picked as the worst quarterback in the conference by Brad Crawford from 24/7 Sports. He was able to channel that external doubt into one of best seasons of any Razorback quarterback in recent memory.
KJ Jefferson’s Characteristics
Jefferson completed 198 of 294 passes for 2,676 yards with 21 touchdowns and only four interceptions in 2021. His 67.3% completion rate ranks second-best in school history for a single season, behind Feleipe Franks in 2020.
His 2,676 passing yards and 21 touchdowns also rank in the top ten in school history for a single season, at seventh and tied-for-seventh respectively.
Jefferson also showed that he was a serious dual-threat quarterback, running the ball 146 times for 664 yards and six touchdowns.
He earned admiration from fans for his physical running style that you wouldn’t expect from a quarterback in today’s game. The quarterback position has far outpaced any other position in its importance to a team’s success.
With that, more and more quarterbacks have been conditioned to avoid any extra contact that could lead to injury. Instead, most quarterbacks opt to sliding down, throwing the ball away or running out of bounds.
Jefferson’s style is very old school, and rare to see in football now. It’s very similar to that of 2010 Heisman-winner Cam Newton, and even evokes some of the grittier old school running quarterbacks of yore – guys in the 1950s and 1960s like Fran Tarkenton and Y.A. Tittle.
Razorback fans love Jefferson’s no-holds-barred running style. He never shies away from the contact and isn’t afraid to put his body on the line if it means gaining extra yardage.
If it was possible to make his 2021 season seem more impressive, news broke last week that Jefferson underwent minor surgery on his knee to clean up a lingering issue he had dealt with for more than half of the season.
During the Texas A&M game on Sept. 25, he was pushed out of bounds by Aggie linebacker Aaron Hansford. After the play, Jefferson had a noticeable limp and would eventually sit out for 20 plays before returning to the game to help seal a 20-10 win.
Jefferson didn’t miss a single game in 2021, and was still one of the best quarterbacks in the country despite playing on a knee that needed surgery. That kind of toughness and sacrifice is the exact kind of thing that endears players to fans long after their playing days are over.
Doubt Going into 2022 Arkansas Football Season
Even despite his impressive season, he’s still being doubted going into the 2022 season, this time when it comes to his Heisman odds.
This external doubt isn’t new for Jefferson, as he dealt with it in high school. Few thought he could become a good passer out of high school, even though he finished his high school career with 40 wins, 9,582 passing yards and 119 of 143 total career touchdowns coming through the air.
Few thought he had the accuracy and decision making to take care of the ball as a quarterback in college, even though he’s only thrown five interceptions in 21 career games and not lost a single fumble since arriving at Arkansas.
Jefferson’s mental toughness allows him to not channel that doubt as added pressure on himself, but instead it seems he uses it as motivation to continue getting better.
That mindset is another characteristic that the “Ultimate Razorback” needs to have.
Launchpad for KJ Jefferson
As the spotlight on Arkansas football grew throughout 2021, so did the spotlight on KJ Jefferson.
Jefferson is a native of Sardis, Mississippi, a small town about 30 minutes west of Ole Miss’ campus in Oxford. For the sixth game of the 2021 season, he got the chance to play in his home state again when Arkansas traveled to Oxford for a highly anticipated top-25 matchup.
Jefferson wasn’t shy about his excitement and the emotions of getting to play in front of friends and family again.
“I’m very excited,” Jefferson said. “I’ve got a lot of family members coming to the game to watch me play. They’ve never been to a game. So I’m pretty pumped that they’ll be able to make it and come see me play.”
His return to Mississippi was a major story-line going into the game, and was the focus of episode nine of “The Follow” on Hogs+, the new streaming platform for Razorback athletics.
The Razorbacks went on to lose in heartbreaking fashion 52-51, but Jefferson put on an incredible individual performance.
He finished with 326 passing yards, 85 rushing yards and six total touchdowns (three passing and three rushing). His performance through the air outshined Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral (287 yards passing), a Heisman Trophy front runner at the time.
A quick reminder that he was able to put up those numbers only two weeks after suffering the knee injury against Texas A&M that would eventually require surgery.
Nevertheless, the emotions of coming up short in front of so many friends and family were not easy for Jefferson to hide. As evident from this Twitter video below, which shows his mother embracing him right after the game.
“I mean I shed a few tears because it was personal,” said Jefferson on “The Hog Pod with Bo Mattingly.” “Ole Miss is right up the road (from Sardis) and I wanted to win, so it was personal. Just when I hugged her the tears came out of nowhere because we’ve been through so much together.”
It’s rare for a college football player at his level to be that open and honest about their emotions. That type of vulnerability isn’t what you’d expect when watching him run over opposing defenders in the open field.
But that is one of the reasons that has endeared Jefferson to fans. He plays with a toughness and grit that Hog fans admire, but off the field he’s a gentle giant who understands the impact he can have on others.
In January, the Facebook post above gained a lot of traction amongst Razorback-related social media pages. From the post, Jefferson had traveled to these fans’ house to surprise their kids, pose for some pictures and sign their Arkansas jerseys.
The impact this can have, especially on younger fans, is immeasurable.
When I was only five years old, my family went to the 1999 Red-White Spring game. After the scrimmage we got to go on the field and meet Clint Stoerner. As a five-year-old kid, meeting him was the coolest thing ever.
It solidified my lifelong Hog fandom, and I would emulate Stoerner any time I had a football in my hand growing up. Just taking thirty seconds to take a photo with us was everything and, in my mind, he was the greatest because of it.
As an adult, it seems silly, but those types of things have the ability to make a lasting impact.
While there are numerous stories like this one across the sports landscape, it still often gets overlooked. As the starting quarterback at a school like Arkansas, small acts of kindness tend to go a longer way amongst fans than they would at some other places.
It’s rare that college players fully comprehend that, but it seems Jefferson understands completely.
“Me coming up here (to Fayetteville) performing well, trying to do the best I can to just be a positive role model for the young kids and get them to look up to me is truly a blessing,” said Jefferson on ‘The Hog Pod.’
That type of maturity and humility isn’t always easy to find in a college athlete and can go a long way in solidifying his legacy as a great Arkansas quarterback.
Arkansas fans have unanimously gotten behind Jefferson, as one search of his name on social media will show you. However, it’s important to point out that the quarterback of the biggest school in the state hadn’t been linked to any major NIL deals during the first few months of NIL’s legalization.
Why was that the case?
NIL Opportunities Not a Priority for Jefferson
The NIL policy was adopted by the NCAA in the summer of 2021, leading college athletes across the country to sign significant deals to make money off their name.
Nick Saban raised eyebrows this summer when he announced at a Texas high school coaches convention that Bryce Young had NIL deals that were approaching “almost seven figures” in total.
Arkansas football’s entire offensive line even signed an NIL deal with Wright’s Barbecue in Fayetteville.
Jefferson doesn’t have any notable NIL deals like his offensive line or Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young.
According to Mike Irwin of Pig Trail Nation, though, that’s by choice.
“He has one of the lowest monetary NIL deals on campus,” said Irwin on PTN’s ‘Ask Mike’ segment. “Because it’s not a big deal to him.”
“He likes his position coach, he feels like that coach can get him to the NFL, he likes Arkansas, and he wants to get better,” Irwin continued. “He’s not running around worried about his NIL money.”
Mike Irwin’s Jefferson NIL insight begins at the 21:10 mark.
It may seem surprising that a college kid isn’t concerned about his monetary options yet, but it’s just another reason why Jefferson can be considered this team’s “Ultimate Razorback.”
In today’s college landscape, players are transferring schools at an unheard of pace.
According to David Hale of ESPN, there are currently over 3,000 players in the transfer portal, and it’s hard to believe it’s just a coincidence.
Anytime a player leaves a school now, there are questions of: “Is it because they have a better NIL deal?”
Rumors swirled in early January that Texas A&M has shelled out an outrageous $30 million worth of NIL deals for their incoming recruits, and it seems deals like these are only the beginning.
Jefferson’s stance is a refreshing change of pace, and provides insight into why it is believed that he only has one NIL deal right now.
Trey Biddy of HawgSports.com recently confirmed this on 103.7 the Buzz: “All I’ve seen is on Instagram he posted a picture with some kind of retainer, and that’s the only one I’ve seen.” On his personal Instagram account, Jefferson has a picture with a Polident ProGuard retainer with “#ad” included in his post, indicating that it is an advertisement and not a personal post.
That goes back to further confirm Mike Irwin’s point that Jefferson isn’t worried about that right now, which is what you like to see from your football team’s leader.
That attitude can trickle down and set an example for others on the roster to follow, and help further solidify the culture that Sam Pittman wants to build within Arkansas football.
KJ Jefferson and Sam Pittman
Jefferson is as likeable as his head coach, and the two represent the best of Arkansas athletics.
Arkansas fans are used to having a chip on their shoulder, and constantly being counted out by the “experts.”
When Pittman was hired, nobody truly believed he would have the success he’s had in such a short amount of time.
When Jefferson was named the starter entering the 2021 season, he was picked as the worst quarterback in the conference.
Jefferson doesn’t have the arm of Ryan Mallet, and he doesn’t have the speed of Matt Jones or Quinn Grovey. He doesn’t particularly excel at one thing beyond bowling dudes over, but is really good at everything.
While Jefferson may never garner the admiration and respect he deserves on a national level, he’s already gotten it from the Arkansas football fans.
He’s the perfect quarterback for a fanbase that embraces being the underdog.
Combine that with his leadership and character off-the-field, and it’s precisely what makes him this team’s “Ultimate Razorback.”