By Nate Allen
FAYETTEVILLE – Both as a redshirting freshman in 2019 and redshirted freshman in 2020, circumstances propelled then reserve Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson into starting one game each season.
They prepared Jefferson to excel as the 12-game sthird-year sophomore starting quarterback for the 8-4 Razorbacks heading into their Jan. 1 Outback Bowl game against the 7-5 Penn State Nittany Lions in Tampa, Fla.
Regardless whether they start or play as reserves, with first-team All-SEC receiver Treylon Burks turned pro and not playing in the bowl game, true freshmen receivers Ketron Jackson, Bryce Stephens and Jaedon Johnson should view what transpires in Tampa as their expanded opportunity, Jefferson said after Thursday’s practice.
“For this bowl game, I just feel like it’s time for the young guys to step up with Treylon out,” Jefferson said. “Everybody is going to get their opportunity
They must prepare with urgency but confidently, Jefferson said.
“Just want to make sure those young guys feel as comfortable as possible and confident also,” Jefferson said. “I always tell them, ‘This is your opportunity, make the most of it. Have fun. You’ve been playing football since you were little, so there’s nothing much to it. Just have fun and play ball.”
Jefferson was asked about the freshmen individually.
Jackson has played quite a bit catching 5 passes for 97 yards. He caught a 29-yard touchdown against UAPB and 2 catches for 39 and 14 yards in the final SEC game against Missouri.
“ Ketron, he’s played in some big-time games,” Jefferson said. “Made some big-time catches and stuff. So, Ketron, I mean, he’s having a great year so far. For those younger guys. Jaedon and Bryce, as far as these bowl practices have been going, they’ve been doing some great stuff on the outside. Just making sure I’m getting the ball and letting them play ball.”
For starters as receivers the Hogs look to bonus year “super seniors” Tyson Morris and De’Vion Warren, seniors in 2020, eligible again as 2021 seniors since the NCAA restored 2020 eligibility to 2021 because the covid-19 pandemic so disrupted the 2020 season.
The “super seniors” impact has been immense, Jefferson said.
“Just having that leadership,” Jefferson said. “Being here and knowing how everything works. Seeing different types of fronts and knowing where everybody’s supposed to be. They’re mentors basically. They’re teachers on and off the field.”
Running back Trelon Smith, now a 2-year Razorbacks letterman after first redshirting in 2019 upon transferring from Arizona State, could be a super senior in 2022 since he lettered during the eligibility restoring 2020 campaign.
“”I have been weighing that option, but I haven’t made a decision yet,” Smith said after Thursday’s practice. “We’re still in season, so I’m just trying to get through with the season and go from there.”
So far Smith has led from the front and led from behind. Smith opened the 2020 season backing up Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas’ 1,000-plus yards rusher in 2019.
Before Arkansas’ 3-7 entirely in the SEC 2020 season ended, Boyd was injured and opting out preparing for the NFL.
Smith became the team’s leading rusher with 134 carries for 710 yards and five touchdown.
The little big man, 5-9, 190, leads Arkansas in rushing again, 117 carries for 592 net yards and five touchdowns, but has been supplanted as a starter by big sophomore Dominique Johnson, 6-1, 235, in a rotation also with 6-2, 225 true freshman Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, and 5-11, 200 true freshman AJ Green.
Contributing on and off the field as Smith has couldn’t have been easy demoted from starting.
“It was rough, but I’m a team person first,” Smith said. “So my whole mindset was just to keep doing what I do best. I just did what I had to do to help the team out and continue to win.”
Johnson and Sanders both have commented on Smith’s leadership role in their success.
Arriving as Jefferson arrived in 2019 with Chad Morris still the coach, Smith firsthand has seen Jefferson under Coach Sam Pittman, offensive coordinator Kendal Briles and Feleipe Franks, last year’s graduate transfer starting quarterback now with the Atlanta Falcons, develop from the lowest level preseason projected 2021 starting SEC quarterback into a star completing 66 percent (184 of 275 passes for 2,579 yards and 21 touchdowns vs. three interceptions. Jefferson has epitomized run-pass rushing 126 times for 554 yards and five touchdowns.
“I believe KJ came in and did exactly what he was supposed to do,” Smith said. “I feel like he stepped up to the plate after Franks left, and he’s a true leader on this team. He proved everybody wrong. All the doubters. They had him last on the list with the quarterbacks in the SEC, and he proved everybody wrong. He’s a true leader and a true champion.”
On the defensive side, fourth-year junior defensive tackle Isaiah Nichols of Springdale cited not just bonus senior linebackers Grant Morgan, a finalist for the Jason Witten Award and recent Brandon Burlsworth Trophy winner, and Hayden Henry, but D-line transfers John Ridgeway via Illinois State and Tre Williams and Markell Utsey.
“I think it’s been a huge impact,” Nichols said. “Because we were starting to build good things last year and it’s like, we started something and we didn’t quite get to finish it. (Arkansas’ Texas Bowl game against TCU was cancelled by too many TCU covid-positive tests) So to bring everybody back, and then the transfers, ‘Kell, Tre and Ridge on the D-line …I think without them, we wouldn’t be the complete team that we are now.”