The good news for Arkansas post-Mike Woods transfer? KJ Jefferson looks like a breakout star
It took Mike Woods executing a perfect double move on a little slant-and-go (sluggo) route for folks like myself to be reminded that the veteran downfield threat was in an ideal situation at Arkansas.
Of course, Woods saw things a little differently. Just days after that spring game touchdown and declaration he’d be a Hog for life, he hit the transfer portal. For a team loaded with offseason momentum with a slew of upperclassmen taking advantage of the free year of eligibility, Sam Pittman’s squad experienced its most notable personnel spurn yet. The Hogs went from having arguably the top deep threat in the SEC to realizing that the battle for WR2 in Fayetteville is suddenly at the top of the priority list.
But perhaps the saving grace in the Woods situation can be found elsewhere. As in, the dude who perfectly set him up on that spring game score, KJ Jefferson, looks the part.
By “the part,” I mean he looks like a breakout candidate in the SEC.
Of course, Jefferson’s path to earning that status would’ve been much easier had he been able to throw that deep ball to someone like Woods, but having Treylon Burks back is still a massive luxury. His versatility and reliability is something that a first-time starter like Jefferson will come to appreciate. You know, just in case that wasn’t already established when Burks hauled in double-digit catches in a 206-yard performance in Jefferson’s lone start of 2020.
That’s not to totally dismiss Malik Hornsby, who is probably a more natural fit in Kendal Briles’ up-tempo offense than Jefferson, who was recruited to run Chad Morris’ offense. But the much smaller, quicker Hornsby doesn’t go through his progressions like Jefferson. You can’t lock in on one target pre-snap and get away with it in the SEC. We got a few reminders of that against Barry Odom’s defense in the spring game.
Jefferson, on the other hand, looks comfortable standing in the pocket. He steps into his throws, he attacks downfield and when he needs to, he has enough mobility to tuck it and extend drives by converting with his legs. There’s potential that with more reps, Jefferson has some Josh Allen-like tendencies to his game. The deep ball looks effortless, he’s going to be brutal to bring down at 240 pounds and with some more time, we should see that craftiness develop with his footwork.
And let’s not forget: Briles’ offense is all about improvement. Each of the last 4 years, he was in different places. What did all of them do? Improve by at least 4 points per game. Two of them (2017 FAU and 2018 Houston) actually improved by 2 touchdowns per game.
This is the first time that Briles has actually been in the same place for a Year 2 since his Baylor days in 2016. In other words, Jefferson will have the benefit of a full year in the system after a 2020 season in which he got involved down the stretch when Feleipe Franks got hurt. Jefferson’s only real start came in that thrilling Mizzou game, which saw him pass for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns (he added 1 rushing) in a 50-48 loss.
There’s no question the accuracy has to improve. In mostly scattered reps, he’s a career 47% passer. In that lone start, he was just shy of 55%. Even compared to Franks, who threw at nearly a 69% clip last year, that’s a noticeable difference. Accuracy is obviously a big “what if,” but if Jefferson can at least get to 60%, you can take the good with the bad.
Why? The “good” means deep passes like this:
KJ Jefferson to Treylon Burks for 68-yard touchdown.
Burks has been unguardable at times this season.pic.twitter.com/a2YtmFCC9Y
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) December 5, 2020
Jefferson is at his best when he can look off a safety and know he has single coverage deep on the opposite side of the field. He’s most comfortable in the pocket. It’s not that he can’t make throws on the run, but he’s not about to look like Bo Nix and unnecessarily scramble when his first read isn’t there. Hornsby probably does a better job of making throws on the run when the play breaks down, though again, we don’t know how much Jefferson will improve in that area when he gets more consistent work.
There’s a certain poise and calmness about his game. It was evident against Mizzou, where he only took 1 sack (5 starting offensive linemen are back in 2021). That’s perhaps why on his final drive of the day, Jefferson ended it by calmly finding the aforementioned Woods, who came across the formation in motion and was met with a perfect pass at the left pylon.
That should’ve been a game-tying touchdown. Instead, after a miraculous 2-point conversion put the Hogs in front, a depleted Arkansas defense couldn’t muster a stop and Jefferson’s first start of the Pittman era was spoiled.
Still, Jefferson stepped in and did exactly what Arkansas could’ve asked for. That’ll be his responsibility this year. It got a bit more challenging with the news of Woods’ entry into the transfer portal, no doubt. Woods’ ability to impact a defense by stretching the field will be missed, and despite the plethora of potential options to fill that void, there’s no guarantee that happens.
The good news is that for the first time since the Bret Bielema era, Arkansas has a legitimate QB1 who will get a normal offseason. What a crazy concept. And to be fair, Franks handled all of those moving pieces well in his first and only season in Fayetteville. He was a legit QB1, despite the fact that his offseason in his new surroundings was far from normal.
In a way, Jefferson has some new surroundings. All signs out of camp are that he’s doing all the cliché things you’d hope to see out of your starter-to-be. The leadership has stepped up, the command of the offense has stepped up and he’s embracing this opportunity. He spent the last 2 years waiting for it. What he does with it remains to be seen.
Jefferson admitted after the spring game that he came into the offseason lacking full confidence because he had to tweak his footwork, he wanted to become more accurate and he wanted to do a better job recognizing defenses. Now, though, he said he “grew and matured a whole lot.” Pittman confirmed that in the last 5 practices, Jefferson showed that improvement from an accuracy standpoint.
It’s clear after the spring he had, his arrow is pointing up.
What’s Jefferson’s upside without Woods? Can he still be the breakout star in the SEC this year? It might be unfair to say he’s got the potential to have a breakout year on par with 2019 Joe Burrow or Mac Jones and Kyle Trask last year, but it’s not crazy to think that Jefferson can become Arkansas’ first all-SEC quarterback since Tyler Wilson in 2011.
Jefferson was the silver lining in a bizarre end to Arkansas’ spring. Even without Woods, the pieces are in place for Jefferson to be the X-factor in a successful end to Arkansas’ fall.