FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Chad Morris has made a change at quarterback and going with the two younger ones.
Redshirt freshman John Stephen Jones will get his first collegiate start after coming off the bench the past two games. True freshman KJ Jefferson, who played for the first time this past Saturday, will also get playing time. Senior Ben Hicks and junior Nick Starkel have combined to start the first eight games, but aren’t on the depth chart this week.
“We’ll start John Stephen Jones this week,” Morris said. “I’m excited for him. We will play KJ as well and continue to develop him. They will add to the list of freshmen and sophomores that we’ve started this year. I believe about half of our starters this season have been freshmen or sophomores. So they’ll add to that list.”
Jones has completed 10 of 16 passes for 92 yards and two touchdowns with one interception. He has also rushed nine times for 17 yards. He played in three games as a true freshman in 2018. Morris talked about what he has seen from Jones so far this season.
“I think when you look at his prior performance when he stepped on the field, the last two weeks,” Morris said. “The moment has not been too big for him. I think he did a great job coming out and playing with grit and toughness and just providing a lift. I think he’ll play really well. I’ve watched him from high school and to where he is now and just his development.”
Joe Craddock is Arkansas’ offensive coordinator and he too talked about Jones and Jefferson playing this week.
“We’re really excited to see John Stephen out there,” Craddock said. “He’s come in and done some good things the last couple weeks. He also had a good fall camp. So we’re excited to get him out there and see what he can do. Obviously, we have a plan for KJ to get him out there as well.
“We’re still working through game-planning and all that. We’ll come up with a good plan to make sure they’re both comfortable with what we’re doing and making sure that they can execute the offense as a high level.”
Both Jones and Jefferson give Arkansas a threat to run at quarterback.
“Both of them possess the ability the run a little bit better than the other guys,” Craddock said. “That’s something we’ve always had in our offense is a guy that extend a play with his feet and also have a quarterback run or two mixed in.”
Jefferson entered the game in the fourth quarter and promptly led the Hogs on a four-play, 75-yard drive that ended with him scoring on a 5-yard run. Jefferson completed 1 of 2 passes for 32 yards and had two runs for 26 and the touchdown.
“It was very encouraging to have six true freshmen out there on that drive with a redshirt freshman in (Ryan) Winkel,” Craddock said. “It was very encouraging. Those guys got very excited when KJ got it in the end zone. It was pretty cool to see those guys rally in the end zone and get excited for his first career touchdown. It was very excited to see that for sure.”
While Jones is the starter it’s certain Jefferson will also get in. Craddock talked about how the reps could be distributed.
“We’re definitely going to see him earlier,” Craddock said. “We’ll see. We haven’t set anything yet. We’re still working on the game plan. We’d like to get him in there a lot earlier, obviously, than last week and kind of see who’s moving the ball the best and who gives us the best chance to win.”
Since Jefferson has only played in one game is there an expanded package for him to run this week?
“Yeah, absolutely,” Craddock said. “Like I said, the bye week was huge for him. He got a lot of reps. He’s been in all of my meetings. So, he’s really coming along and doing some really good things. We can definitely expand that package for sure.”
Both Hicks and Starkel have failed to give the Hogs an edge that was expected when they were signed. Morris talked about what led to the decision to take both off the depth chart.
“I’m excited about John Stephen and KJ,” Morris said. “I think those guys, you felt the lift on the sidelines. I know I did, when they went in. You know, again, with Ben and with Nick, they’re two fine young men that love the game of football. And a lot of factors that have came into play that wasn’t wasn’t solely just those two guys or just one guy. I mean, it just didn’t work out. We couldn’t get the consistency that we needed. But they were back in here yesterday and eager to help these young guys continue to grow and mature. And if their opportunity arises they’re going to be prepared to step in there if it comes to that.”
While the crowd on Saturday had very little to cheer about, the largest ovation for Arkansas came when Jefferson ignited the offense.
“I think that when you add the quarterback running game to the dimension of an offense, to our offense and what we’ve been, it adds a new dimension, it adds a new gap,” Morris said. “Quarterback with being a runner, they create an extra gap. So I think that’s some of the reasons we had some success with it. I think the ability of these guys understanding they want the ball in their hands. I thought from a team standpoint, even from last night, the guys were back in here.
“Again, as I mentioned earlier they were disappointed as we all were, but there was when we got out on the field yesterday or last night, guys were bouncing around and ready to improve and get better. With John Stephen and KJ, I think they’re excited just to watch these young men and help them out.”
Arkansas and Western Kentucky will kickoff at 11 a.m. on Saturday and will be shown on the SEC Network. It will be Senior Day for Arkansas.