By Otis Kirk
FAYETTEVILLE — Arkansas’ offense will once be under the guidance of Kendal Briles with quarterback KJ Jefferson running it.
Briles is pleased to have Jefferson back as a redshirt junior. This will be the second year for Jefferson to enter the season as the first-team quarterback. Briles made it clear on Friday what he thinks of Jefferson.
“Time will tell, you know?,” Briles said. “Time will tell. It all matters with the passing game with how we’re running the ball and how we’re protecting. There’s so many variables. How they’re playing us. If they’re playing us off, we’re going to run the football. So, there’s so many variables that you can look at and say ‘heck, he only threw for 150 yards.’ Bottom line is he is a winner. We know he’s a winner. When you’re a quarterback, to be a great quarterback, you have to win football games. I believe in him, and I wouldn’t trade him for anybody in American when it comes to winning football games. However we’ve got to do it, we’ve got to do it.”
Briles is impressed with how Jefferson has stepped up as a leader on the team.
“You hit it right there, it’s just leading,” Briles said. “It’s been so great to have a guy that’s done it. Because when he talks, they listen, and that wasn’t the case this time a year ago. This time a year ago, we really had no idea what he could do on the field. Before you get on the field with live bullets, you just really don’t know. So now we know what we have from a competitive standpoint. His development as a true quarterback, throwing the football, seeing reads, his leadership skills in the locker room, during summer workouts. Everything he’s done, he’s put himself in position to have a great year. Incredibly pleased with his work ethic. And the way that he’s mentored some of the younger guys. Just trying to get them… I don’t want to say playing on his level, but he’s playing at a pretty high level in practice right now. To get those guys on the same page has been impressive to watch, so I’m pretty pleased with him.”
Jefferson talked about how he feels his leadership skills have improved the most.
“Just being more vocal,” Jefferson said. “When things aren’t going right, being able to just call the whole offense up and set it straight right then and there instead of waiting and letting it kind of dwell and keep building into a bigger problem. So just stopping it right then and there and being more vocal.”
As one would expect, Jefferson leads the quarterback efficiency rankings on the Razorbacks.
“Right now, KJ is leading that group, Cade Fortin is right behind him and Malik Hornsby is behind him,” Briles said. “Obviously, KJ is working with a little bit higher caliber of player and O-line. But he’s also playing against it too. There’s DB’s and guys that are making plays. So, I’m pleased with where they’re at. We’ve been practicing against this defense. I was talking to Kyle on the way over here. We’ve been practicing against these guys for a long time it seems like. So, we’re ready to get on and start getting ready for Cincinnati.”
Fortin is a transfer from South Florida and walked on at Arkansas. Fortin was a four-star recruit out of Suwanee (Ga.) North Gwinnett High School in the Class of 2018. He signed with North Carolina and played there two seasons before heading to USF for another couple of years. He and Hornsby both drew some praise from Briles as he talked about the backup quarterback spot.
“Yeah, he’s done a really good job,” Briles said of Fortin. “Both those guys, I feel like, we definitely trust on the field. And they’re both a little different. Cade can move around a little bit, but he’s a guy that can get back there and deal the ball. And then obviously with Malik and his speed and what he does to the defense with plus-one game and still being able to throw the football down the field, we feel really good about both those guys if they’re called upon.”
Being able to get two scholarship quarterbacks at other schools to walk on at Arkansas speaks volumes about the program Briles said. Last year, Kade Renfro came over from Ole Miss.
“It’s huge, you know,” Briles said. “I don’t know what it says. I know how it feels. It feels good having them in the quarterback room. Those guys are Power 5 scholarship quarterbacks, and they’re in our room, and they’re paying for their school. I think it shows that this program is on the rise. I think it shows that these kids trust what we have going on here. And then, we talked about the transfer portal earlier. You know, guys can get in there and sit in there for a while and not have a home and maybe not get exactly what they want. And I think that’s another good use for the portal. Guys that sit in there for a long time, and if they’re given hope – whether that’s monetarily or not with a scholarship – then you can get some guys on your campus. Once you get a guy over here to Fayetteville and show him the place and let him feel our culture, then they want to be a part of it.”
In 2021, Jefferson passed for 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns while only throwing four interceptions. One of those was a Hail Mary at halftime of the Ole Miss game. Briles likes how Jefferson protects the football.
“That’s correlated to the center Ricky Stromberg as well, and the running backs and the guys that are meshing with the football,” Briles said. “There’s a lot of guys that touch the ball, but the center and quarterback are touching it every snap. Our No. 1 goal every game is no turnovers. We talk about it every time we take the field for any possession during the game. That’s the No. 1 goal of our offense is protecting the football. We did a really nice job of that last year. We had nine total going into the bowl game then had two in the bowl game. If we can continue to protect the ball at a high level, our defense is going to get turnovers and we’ll have a chance to win games. That’s where you want to be.”
Jefferson also led the Razorbacks in rushing with 664 yards and six touchdowns. Briles was asked if he is fine with the quarterback topping the team in rushing?
“I’m totally cool winning football games,” Briles said. “I’m not a stats guy. Stats are good because people lie and numbers don’t, but I like winning. However we’ve got to win, I don’t care. If the defense scores two safeties and we win 4-0, we won. It’s all about winning football games. Now it’s not going to be happy and we’re not going to be excited about it, but it’s all about winning games. I don’t care how we do it.”
Briles also explained in what areas Jefferson has improved his accuracy.
“I think his footwork,” Briles said. “His footwork has been key for all of that. There were times last year, I’m sure, that everybody sees it, there were times when he was stagnant in the pocket, standing straight up. His footwork has been really, really good. That’s been a point of emphasis for us, and he’s done a tremendous job with that. We’re very pleased with that and it’s helping his accuracy.”
Arkansas is set to scrimmage for the second time on Saturday as the season is just over two weeks away. Jefferson talked about how practice has gone to this point.
“It’s been fun,” Jefferson said. “Very competitive. Each and every day we’re coming out there to get better. Keep pushing for perfection. Just being perfect on both sides of the ball, all phases of the game. Special teams as well. So far, so good. Everybody’s having fun, everybody’s competing and flying around.”
Jefferson talked about the efficiency of the offense to this point.
“It’s been up and down, here and there,” Jefferson said. “But so far everybody’s been good. We’ve been on the rise. We’ve just got to clean up those small details. We can’t hurt ourselves. We know in this league we can’t get behind the chains. Trying to stay ahead of the chains in certain scenarios and situations that Coach Pittman puts us in. … Stay out of third-and-long on those types of scenarios.”
Arkansas will open the season on Saturday, Sept. 3, when they host Cincinnati at 2:30 p.m. in Razorback Stadium.