Not since before Bobby Petrino ran his motorcycle off the road has an Arkansas quarterback had more hype going into a season than KJ Jefferson entering 2022.
In his first year as a starter, the Sardis, Miss., native took the SEC by storm, leading the Razorbacks to a 9-4 record that included a New Year’s Day bowl win and earned a No. 21 ranking in the final AP Poll.
Even though he had been a four-star recruit and played well against Missouri when he started in place of an injured Feleipe Franks the year before, Jefferson didn’t have the highest of expectations before last season.
Sure, the Arkansas football coaching staff had the utmost confidence in him and fans looking through rose-colored glasses were high on him, but that wasn’t a universal feeling. In fact, one national writer for 247Sports ranked him 14th out of 14 starting quarterbacks in the SEC.
Fast forward one year and the conversation is much different — so different that Jefferson is even being discussed as a “dark horse” candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
It started almost as soon as last season ended, with Fox Sports’ RJ Young ranking him third on his list of “2022 Heisman Sleepers,” and has continued well into the summer.
Sportsbooks have even identified Jefferson as a legitimate candidate, albeit a long-shot. DraftKings updated its Heisman odds Monday and he’s tied for 18th at +6000. He’s tied for 17th at +8000 on FanDuel and tied for 18th at +6600 on Vegas Insider, as well.
For him to even be in the conversation, much less become the first Arkansas player to ever win the award, *a lot* has to go right.
KJ Jefferson’s Target Stats
Last season, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles told reporters that KJ Jefferson’s target completion percentage was 65%. Considering he’d completed just 47.2% of his passes in limited action the previous two years and only three quarterbacks in UA history had ever hit that mark for a season, it seemed like a pretty lofty goal.
Instead, not only did Jefferson achieve it, but he blew past it and finished the year with a completion percentage of 67.3% — behind only Franks’ record of 68.5% set a year earlier.
That mark will likely need to stay about the same, if not tick up just a bit more, on a much larger sample size in 2022 if he’s going to be in the Heisman Trophy conversation.
Jefferson threw for 2,676 yards last season, which is solid and ranks seventh on the UA single-season chart. He was also incredibly efficient with 21 touchdown passes and only four interceptions. Throw in what he did on the ground — the second-best rushing season by an Arkansas quarterback, behind only Matt Jones’ 2003 season — and he accounted for 3,340 yards and 27 touchdowns.
Arkansas football fans, especially considering what they went through in the not-so-distant past, would take those numbers every year, but they are far below what usually lands a quarterback on the Heisman ballot.
Just look at the quarterbacks who finished in the top five of the Heisman voting the last two years. Five of the six threw for at least 4,200 yards. The lone exception was Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (3,153 yards), who likely got the nod as a career accomplishment by a generational talent. That group, excluding Lawrence, also accounted for an average of 46 total touchdowns.
If those trends hold true, Jefferson probably needs to rack up about another 1,000 yards and 15-20 touchdowns, whether it’s through the air or on the ground. The increased production would be impressive in its own right, but even more so considering the departure of the ultimate safety blanket, former Razorback receiver Treylon Burks.
That sentiment was echoed by 247Sports national analyst — and Arkansas native — Brandon Marcello in an interview on Out of Bounds, a radio show on 103.7 The Buzz, last month.
“KJ was extremely consistent last year,” Marcello said. “I think that gets lost in all of this. My goodness, he threw 20 touchdowns against only two interceptions in the final 11 games of the season. That’s nuts.
“But, having said that, he’s going to have to throw more touchdowns, he’s going to have to put up more yardage, and he needs to beat someone of the likes of Alabama to end up being in New York City at the end of the year.”
Signature Wins for Arkansas Football
For a player to win the Heisman Trophy at a school like Arkansas, he probably needs to lead his team to a signature win at some point during the season.
The last time a player at a non-traditional power won the award was 2016, when Louisville’s Lamar Jackson won it — while coached by Bobby Petrino. In addition to racking up more than 5,000 total yards and 51 touchdowns, Jackson also led the Cardinals to a win over No. 2 Florida State early in the season — a game in which he accounted for 362 yards and five touchdowns.
A few years earlier, Johnny Manziel’s Heisman Trophy season at Texas A&M included a win over No. 1 Alabama. The season before that, Robert Griffin III led Baylor to a win over No. 5 Oklahoma.
Winning in general — such as the Razorbacks ripping off 10 straight in 2006 to bolster Darren McFadden’s case — is important, but so is a signature win. McFadden got that with a win at No. 2 Auburn, but wins over LSU and/or Florida at the end of the season might have been able to push the sophomore over the top, especially with Ohio State’s Troy Smith winning the No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown with Michigan.
Luckily for KJ Jefferson, he should have plenty of opportunities to have a so-called “Heisman moment” because of the Razorbacks’ loaded schedule. That said, one game stands above them all as the one that could really move him up: Oct. 1, Arkansas vs. Alabama at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
“It’s going to take some big upset victories in addition to just rolling up those type of stats,” Marcello said on Out of Bounds. “I think it’s very clear when you play in the SEC, you not only need the stats, but you’re going to have to get the big wins. For him, those opportunities arrive when you play Alabama, of course, or even Texas A&M, but more so Alabama. You’ve got to get a big, big, big, huge win.”
Staying Healthy is Key
All of this is a moot point if KJ Jefferson can’t stay on the field in 2022. Not only is his health critical for the Razorbacks’ success as a team, but it’s also a major key for him to stay in contention for the Heisman Trophy.
Of course, that might also mean taking away from one aspect of his game that is also key to his Heisman campaign.
With more of a target on their back, the Razorbacks could choose to be a little more conservative with Jefferson in the run game, Marcello said. The thinking is that Arkansas has a deep and talented running back room, so it might as well take some off of him to keep him healthy.
“I’m not so sure that he would be more involved in the run game,” Marcello said. “In fact, considering what they have coming back at running back, I would think that they’re going to lean on them a little bit more so. I don’t think you want to put KJ in a situation, as we saw last year in the Texas A&M game for example, where he’s going to get injured.”
It will be a tricky balance for Briles and head coach Sam Pittman to figure out, but that doesn’t change the fact that excitement surrounding the quarterback at Arkansas is at its highest in a decade.
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