KJ Jefferson embraces disrespect (there's plenty), and Arkansas is all in on embracing him
ATLANTA — Sam Pittman doesn’t need to put lipstick on a pig when he talks about KJ Jefferson.
“He makes us go. He sets the tone for our football team,” Pittman said.
The tone that Jefferson set is one of atypical stability for an Arkansas quarterback. He has a legitimate chance to finish as the program’s first All-SEC quarterback since Tyler Wilson in 2011.
Last year, he delivered the program’s best season in a decade. He had a 21-4 TD-INT ratio and also was the leading rusher for the nation’s best Power 5 ground attack.
Jefferson wants more in 2022.
Apparently though, others still want more from him. Granted, it’s not like this time last year when he was ranked as the No. 14 SEC quarterback by my guy Brad Crawford with 247sports (Brad did a massive 180 on KJ and has since apologized to Arkansas fans). Yes, Jefferson still remembers that.
“Coming from where I’m coming from, I’ve always been doubted,” Jefferson said. “It adds fuel to the fire. Just keep it pushing. Knowing that I can’t dwell on it and keep looking at it over and over again because the more I look at it, my mind is not in the right spot. Somebody is ahead of me if I’m not out there working … it’s knowing that when Saturday comes, I just have to prove myself to everybody.”
He doesn’t have to prove himself to his teammates, but when Caesars Sports released its way-too-early Heisman Trophy favorites, Jefferson was only No. 14 among SEC players in the odds (H/T Michael Bratton). That prompted Jefferson to quote tweet those odds with the response, “Last once again, I thought y’all would have learned by now.”
Well, maybe FanDuel learned because Jefferson is tied for No. 7 among SEC players in the Heisman Trophy odds. Still, though. It’s not even unanimous that Jefferson is a top-4 or 5 SEC quarterback. Graphics like this have become a popular source of angst for Arkansas fans on social media.
The QB talent in the SEC 👀🔥 pic.twitter.com/35h7Glt5ni
— PFF College (@PFF_College) July 14, 2022
It’s not just PFF or oddsmakers who aren’t sold on Jefferson as a top-tier SEC quarterback for 2022. Tim Tebow released his top 5 SEC quarterback rankings earlier in the week, and he left Jefferson out.
What does Jefferson need to show Tebow, you ask?
“He doesn’t really need to show me anything,” Tebow told SDS. “It’s not really just about KJ. It’s about the supporting staff around him and really wanting to see if he’s got enough receivers to be able to help him. And I argued with myself for hours about where KJ should be because he’s so right there.
“It’s not that he’s not deserving. He’s one of my favorite players in the SEC. I love the way he plays. I love his toughness. I love the way he’s put his team on his back. I am a KJ fan. It’s just when you’re evaluating these guys, it’s so close. If I felt like he had a receiver or 2 that could step up and really enhance the passing game like he had last year, I think he would move up the rankings pretty fast.”
Fair. The conference is loaded at quarterback, and weapons are a question in a post-Treylon Burks world. The first-round receiver had triple the production that Arkansas’ No. 2 receiver had. Pittman addressed that, as did Jefferson. He talked about the group text that he’s on with his wideouts, and that they tell the janitors to keep the lights on in the facility so they can get reps in late at night.
(He still FaceTimes with Burks regularly. On Tuesday, Burks wanted to show off his new house to Jefferson.)
Still, though. Weapons aside, does Jefferson get enough individual love nationally?
“No, I don’t think he does at all,” Arkansas safety Jalen Catalon said. “But I don’t think he’d want it any other way because that’s just another way for him to prove people wrong. I’m excited to see what KJ can do this year.”
He set the bar high in his first year as a starter, and not just because he stuffed Arkansas’ trophy case by winning rivalry games. He stuffed the stat sheet, too. Jefferson and Hendon Hooker are the only Power 5 quarterbacks who finished in the top 20 in FBS in quarterback rating and also posted 500 rushing yards. On top of that, Jefferson earned the highest PFF grade on downfield throws among SEC quarterbacks. That includes Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young.
You could actually make the case that Jefferson’s 2 best individual games were ones he lost. He posted a career-high 411 total yards (326 passing, 85 rushing) and 6 total touchdowns in a 52-51 loss to Ole Miss.
Good morning. I spent my entire Friday night rewatching Arkansas-Ole Miss, and needless to say, I now find myself counting down the days until I get to watch KJ Jefferson play football again.pic.twitter.com/LfwG6SXlha
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) February 26, 2022
Jefferson said that game is bittersweet, even though he became just the 6th SEC quarterback in the 21st century to have 3 passing touchdowns and 3 rushing touchdowns in the same game. A failed 2-point conversion attempt with no time left left him empty-handed. Against Alabama in Tuscaloosa, he passed for 326 yards and 3 scores, but it came in a 42-35 loss.
National media might’ve dubbed those “moral victories” for Arkansas. For Jefferson as an elite quarterback, they might’ve dubbed those “conversion games.”
“Those games, that’s when the narrative of those (skeptics) … they said they respect him. That’s the guy,” Catalon said. “But we knew that was the guy since spring ball, going into fall camp. We already had the confidence. We weren’t shocked when he did that because we saw the countless hours he put in to get to that point and what he’s doing, so we were always with him from the get-go.”
Jefferson said that at this time last year, he had some doubt. He would stress out about being the guy, and admitted that he was “very nervous.” It wasn’t until after the Week 2 blowout of Texas that he truly felt comfortable running the high-paced Kendal Briles offense.
“KJ, the way he commands our locker room — he’s a funny guy — everyone respects him,” Arkansas linebacker Bumper Pool said. “When he’s out there working, he works extremely hard. I think if you see a guy that’s a leader working that hard, there’s no way not to love a guy like that.”
Jefferson has been known to pull pranks on Pittman, but he wouldn’t dare attempt to ride the coach’s beloved new hog statue at his lake house. That’d be crossing the line.
There’s clearly trust between quarterback and head coach, despite the fact that Jefferson committed to Chad Morris’ program. Jefferson didn’t hold it against Pittman when he brought in Feleipe Franks from the transfer portal to be the starter in 2020. In fact, Franks played an instrumental role in molding a young, immature Jefferson. During his lone season in Fayetteville, the former Florida quarterback shared some “dos and don’ts” about playing the position in the SEC.
So far, Jefferson is doing everything Arkansas fans could’ve hoped for.
Even though he converted some skeptics, there’s more he can do individually to help his team. Developing trust with a young, unproven group of receivers is paramount. He continued to prioritize recovery, which he learned a lot about during his first season as a physical, dual-threat guy in the SEC. Taking more chances could lead to Jefferson taking that next step.
Ten wins is the target number that he brought up. Arkansas hasn’t hit that mark since the final year of the Bobby Petrino era in 2011.
If Jefferson can deliver that, well, he’s gonna have to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find some doubt.