FAYETTEVILLE — For the first time since the 2018 season Arkansas is preparing for the opener without a graduate transfer quarterback slated to start.
Gone are Ben Hicks, Nick Starkel and Feleipe Franks and enter redshirt sophomore KJ Jefferson. Franks was very successful at Arkansas and is now with the Atlanta Falcons. Jefferson has been patient and waited his turn. He has played in eight games with two starts. Jefferson has completed 34 of 72 passes for 492 yards and three touchdowns with an interception. He has rushed 58 times for 125 yards and four touchdowns. Kendal Briles is the offensive coordinator and likes what he has seen from Jefferson in preseason.
“In spring, I thought KJ did a nice job overall,” Briles said. “This summer, the biggest thing we wanted to work on was continuing to work on his mobility and his accuracy in practice. Whenever KJ had some opportunities to play and then when we had scrimmages in the spring, he was very accurate. When we were in practices, he wasn’t as accurate. He’s really worked on this over the summer with Coach (Jamil) Walker and our strength program getting him stronger and physically more capable, but I really like where he’s at from a practice standpoint with his accuracy. With our offense and what we do, I’d like for him to be over 65 percent. If we’re doing that, we’re hitting pretty good.”
Is the 65 percent completion something you have talked to Briles about and do you feel like that is something you can do?
“Yeah, I feel like that’s a great number I can accomplish this year,” Jefferson said. “Just taking what the defense gives me. Not being too greedy. Not trying to be overly-aggressive. Just taking easy completions. Moving the ball down the field and getting a great amount of yards, it shouldn’t be an attack that I can’t handle.”
Jefferson has taken the first-team snaps since last spring. He talked about how he feels this preseason has gone to this point.
“I feel like my camp is going good,” Jefferson said. “I’ve been improving in some areas that I’ve really been working on and trying to improve my game. Help my teammates and help the team out.”
Jefferson is a dual-threat quarterback. In the SEC it’s very physical. How much running are you comfortable doing as the risk of injury is always there?
“I’d say not that often,” Jefferson said. “I feel like Coach Briles as far as the QB runs, he knows when to run and when not to run. It all comes down to the quarterback being smart. Run when you have to. Don’t just run because you want to run. Knowing when the pocket is collapsing, knowing when to extend plays. Keep your eyes downfield and maybe get the ball out.
“As far as getting hurt on the QB run, I try not to think about it that much, because I know Coach Briles, and the offense that we run, the QB run is installed in that, but [it’s about] knowing when to run, and when not to run.”
Jefferson and the other quarterbacks wear black protective jerseys in camp and can’t be hit. How much does Briles take that into consideration against Rice in the opener?
“It’s a transition,” Briles said. “It just is, and you can’t recreate it. These kids have been playing football their whole lives, so they understand what’s different when you’re getting hit. It’s all about ball protection. I don’t want to say that we’re just going to run him a bunch. That’s not what we want to do offensively, but sometimes in our play calls, things happen pre-snap, post-snap that are going to allow him to carry the football. I like the fact that you got a guy back there that if things do break down, they can create, and those are things that God gave him the ability to do it and he does it. Those are the things I’m more excited about instead of just straight called runs.
“Obviously situationally you will run him, but yeah, I’m very excited to see him get out there. A lot of times for kids who haven’t been hit and are used to being hit, they want to be hit. They want to have that first tackle. It kind of knocks the rust off them, ‘Okay, I’m ready to go.’ I don’t necessarily love that, but kids want to play and they’ve been playing the game their whole life, so I just have to keep them healthy.”
Being the quarterback at Arkansas comes with additional pressure from leadership to even possibly being the face of the program. How comfortable are you with all that?
“I’m very comfortable,” Jefferson said. “My teammates have instilled a lot of confidence in me. I feel the confidence will take you a long way and help you overcome adversity as well. I feel like my teammates have just done pushed me too ‘I know KJ you can do this. We need you in certain situations. Be big here. We need you to be a big-time quarterback.’ I feel like they’re confident and just motivation and just keep pushing me along and my leadership skills.”
Behind Jefferson is redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby, true freshman Lucas Coley, redshirt junior John Stephen Jones and redshirt freshman Kade Renfro.
“KJ is one, Malik is two right now,” Briles said. “He’s had all the two reps, and he hasn’t let that go. Malik is a special athlete, and he puts pressure on KJ. That’s what we want. The third spot, we’ve got three guys who are really handling that with Jones, Renfro and Coley. All those guys are getting reps, and they’re all different with different abilities. The tough thing with fall camp is unlike the spring when you can throw a bunch of guys out there with a bunch of reps. Right now, we’re getting ready to go beat Rice. They’re limited in the opportunities they have on the field, so they have to make the most of them. A lot of times it’s hard to be able to get in a rhythm and be on the field and really get lathered up. So, it’s difficult. We understand that. All three of those guys are still competing.”
Jefferson also talked about Hornsby. He compared his situation with Hornsby to that of he and Franks last season.
“That relationship is mainly I would sum it as how Feleipe and I were last season with the questions and just being around each other,” Jefferson said. “Interacting with each other on different plays or different schemes the defense is running and what we’re seeing. What I see versus the 1s and what he sees versus the 2s. How I can help him get better with knowing where the defense is. Knowing the pressure coming from this way so let’s get into this play. So I feel like Malik is coming along really well and understanding the concepts we’re running versus the different teams we’re going against.”
Arkansas will hold a big scrimmage on Saturday.