Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson has emerged as a dark-horse Heisman candidate after leading the Razorbacks to their best record since 2011, but his success hasn’t come without its detractors.
Throughout fall camp and into the early weeks of the season, Jefferson caught flak from media and fans for statements he made regarding his weight and the idea of dropping from 247 pounds to between 230 and 235 pounds prior to the opening kick.
One group who wasn’t nearly as concerned was the Razorback coaching staff, namely offensive coordinator Kendal Briles, who told media in his lone 2021 offseason appearance that he “doesn’t care if he’s 285 as long as he’s dropping dimes on people and getting away from pressure.”
“I’ll tell you what, he can run and he can move and he’s got a first step, so I’m not really concerned with it,” Briles said. “A lot of times there’s wants and there’s needs. We need him to be really, really good.”
And fortunately for Arkansas fans, it’s hard to understate just how really, really good he was.
Despite holding strong at an above NCAA-average 245 pounds, Jefferson posted an astounding 664-yard rushing total – good for second all-time in a single season by an Arkansas quarterback (707, Matt Jones, 2003).
He paired his success on the ground with 2,676 yards through the air on 67.3% completion, tying it all together with a 21-to-4 (5.25:1) touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Those passing numbers had Jefferson among not just the top of the SEC last season, but in competition with some of college football’s top “bigger” quarterbacks.
Comparing KJ Jefferson to Big QBs of the Past
One comparison that Briles alluded to, which we took a deeper look at back in August of 2021, is the late “Hefty Lefty,” Jared Lorenzen.
Lorenzen, who rewrote the record books during his four-year career at Kentucky, was well deserving of his nickname, weighing in at 285-pounds. During that run, he posted a 3,600-yard season as a freshman in 2000, and found himself north of 2,000 yards in each of his final three seasons.
Jefferson, though well short of that mark, provides a dual-threat ability far beyond that of Lorenzen, making some other names more apt for comparison.
As far as “throwbacks” go, two standout options are Daunte Culpepper (6-foot-4, 260-pounds) and Donovan McNabb (6-foot-2, 240-pounds), who quarterbacked Central Florida and Syracuse, respectively. More recently though, he’s drawn parallels to a certain Heisman Trophy-winning QB whose production would be more than welcomed by the Razorback faithful.
Amidst the first quarter of Arkansas’ 20-10 victory over Texas A&M in the Southwest Classic this season, CBS’ broadcast team of Gary Danielson and Brad Nessler compared a play made by Jefferson against Texas to one made by Cam Newton back in No. 7 Auburn’s 65-43 win over the 12th-ranked Razorbacks in 2010.
Shortly after, longtime SEC sideline reporter Jamie Erdahl shared a conversation she had with the Arkansas quarterback about the “hero” role Newton plays for him both on and off the field.
“When I talked to KJ Jefferson, I also talked to a couple more of his teammates, and all at the same time on the Zoom when I asked KJ ‘who do you admire? Who do you want to mirror your game after?’ they all said ‘Cam Newton’ for him before he was able to get that name out of his mouth,” Erdahl said.
“He said he wants to play the way he does both on and off the field. He is a big personality, KJ is, that draws his teammates to him, and it’s a little bit like Cam too.
Now, those comparisons are undoubtedly a tad premature, as Newton’s 51-touchdown Heisman campaign dwarfs – as much as a season like Jefferson’s can be dwarfed – what we’ve seen from the Sardis, Miss., native.
How Jefferson Could Still Improve for Arkansas Football
That could, however, change with another productive season for the Razorbacks.
The Arkansas signal-caller is garnering hype to potentially bring home a Heisman of his own, boasting odds as high as 60-1 according to some bookmakers. While he remains an extreme longshot for the title of the nation’s best player, it remains within the realm of possibility that he could leap to the tier of college football’s elite quarterbacks.
Brad Crawford of 247Sports recently ranked Jefferson as the country’s fifth-best quarterback heading into the 2022 season, behind proven commodities Bryce Young (Alabama) and CJ Stroud (Ohio State), and transfer headliners Caleb Williams (USC) and Dillon Gabriel (Oklahoma).
One reason for his success to this point has been the schematic enigma he creates for opposing defenses, in large part due to the unique combination of his size, speed and ability as a passer. Despite the expressed advantage he has while carrying the ball at his listed 245 pounds, head coach Sam Pittman told The Zone recently that Jefferson hasn’t wavered in that goal of cutting some extra weight.
“Certainly if you ask him, he feels like he needs to lose 10 pounds,” Pittman said. “I kind of like him where he is at, but if he feels that would help him, then that’s what he should do”
He echoed that sentiment two days later on an interview with Fringe Element, adding that Jefferson believes in losing the weight because it’d help him “maybe become a little faster, a little more elusive in that.”
Though Pittman disagrees with Jefferson’s idea that he needs to shed a couple of pounds, he did have a couple of points of emphasis for improvement within the third-team preseason All-SEC (Athlon) quarterback’s game.
“KJ needs to improve ball accuracy, his reads,” Pittman said. “I’d like for his percentage to go up on his reads on run plays.
“If he can just improve his short football accuracy, I think he’ll be something really, really special – which he already is. But I think he could even be certainly looked at as one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC if he could do those things.”
Fortunately for Arkansas fans, Jefferson has a laundry list of things he does right, as well. The question of whether or not the Arkansas Razorbacks can be successful with KJ Jefferson under center has been answered with a resounding yes, but if he’s able to get those last aspects firing at peak performance, then the Hogs could find themselves in a dogfight for the SEC West crown sooner rather than later.
As you can see, fans of certain pro teams are already salivating over Jefferson in the NFL:
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