FAYETTEVILLE – Given graduate transfer Feleipe Franks’ 2020 quarterbacking impact on a 3-6 Razorbacks team SEC winless last year with five different starting quarterbacks, it seemed unthinkable this Arkansas team could thrive without him.
But redshirt freshman KJ Jefferson performed so well starting for an injured Franks in last Saturday’s down to the last play 50-48 loss at Missouri that these Razorbacks believe they can battle No. 1 Alabama Saturday whether Franks or Jefferson quarterbacks.
Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman kept quiet through Monday and Tuesday’s closed practices regarding Franks (injured ribs during the Nov. 21 27-24 loss against LSU) playing in Saturday’s 11 a.m. ESPN televised game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium against Coach Nick Saban’s already SEC West champion, 9-0 Crimson Tide.
If it must be Jefferson, senior offensive tackle/offensive co-captain Myron Cunningham and sophomore Razorbacks leading receiver Treylon Burks assert the Razorbacks remain ready to roll.
“Yeah, I think KJ stepping up for us in the Missouri game shows the level of maturity that he has and that whenever his number is called you have to be ready,” Cunningham said after Tuesday’s practice. “He was prepared the whole week like a starter, like a leader. And that’s what he came out and did. He led the team and we were successful.”
The Razorbacks achieved a season game high 566 yards total offense with 292 rushing, including 32 with a touchdown from Jefferson, and Jefferson’s 274 yards passing completing 18 of 33 with three touchdowns.
Although it would be only Jefferson’s third career start if he starts Saturday, it would be his second start against a nationally No. 1 SEC West champion.
While under the 4-game limit allowed to redshirt last year, Jefferson started and eventually exited injuring during the 56-20 loss to eventual 2019 national champion/SEC champion LSU in Baton Rouge, La.
““I think starting in an SEC game always help you with experience because experience is the best tool,” Cunningham said. “I think he’ll be fine versus Alabama if he has to step in. He prepares like a winner. That’s what he is.”
Burks and Franks have eight games meshed like biscuits and gravy. Thirty-nine catches for 598 yards in fact.
But in Columbia, Mo. Jefferson and Burks surpassed as a dynamic duo. Jefferson logged a career high 206 receiving yards catching 10 Jefferson passes.
Just like conversational old times, Burks of Warren said referring to breaking in with Jefferson of Sardis, Miss. as true freshmen last year under the former Arkansas Coach Chad Morris regime.
“We were roommates last year, and we always talked about this,” Burks said after Tuesday’s practice. “That connection with each other. Just the way that we prepare — there were times in practice where he threw the same ball and he just connected perfect. It really wasn’t a surprise.”
Burks said Jefferson always practices “like he’s fixing to start,” and with nearly two full seasons behind has the playbook fixed to turn any page required.
“He’s gotten in the playbook a lot more this year,” Burks said. “You can tell that he wants it. Obviously, he wanted it last year, but it’s just a maturity each year where everybody gets better. That’s one place where I’ve seen him get better.”
Defensively it seems the Razorbacks’ defense must prepare with Butkus Award senior middle linebacker Grant Morgan sidelined.
Morgan of Greenwood, the nation’s leading tackler, watched on crutches from a third quarter knee injury as Missouri scored 27 fourth-quarter points including the game-ending field goal surpassing Arkansas’ 48-47 lead with the 50-48 victory.
Pittman said the Razorbacks missed Morgan’s coach on the field ability to get everyone properly aligned as much as his tackling prowess.
So what’s next, Arkansas star safety Jalen Catalon was asked, at Arkansas middle linebacker against Alabama’s offense without peer?
“It’s just a next-man-up mentality,” Catalon said. “I know we have a lot who are rotating through Hayden Henry, Andrew Parker, Jackson Woodard. It’s different people rotating in. But it’s just next-man-up mentality. So, whoever’s in starting next at the linebacker position has to come in and be vocal. I know the coaches are also looking to me to kind of be the guy to also make sure everything is lined up well, too. I don’t mind taking on that role and making sure things are running smoothly. But when it comes to a linebacker standpoint, it just has to be next man up, and I believe in the guys that are behind him to do their jobs and take care of business out there.”