In an oversimplification of what might be the least individualized sport, it’s often said football teams are only as good as their coach and quarterback.
And there’s more than a little truth in that.
Even with only *four wins to show for it, Arkansas fans had to feel pretty good about the first part of that equation after Sam Pittman’s inaugural season in Fayetteville last year. He resurrected a program the rest of the country was ready to leave for dead and made it viable again.
*I won’t yield to SEC officiating or the record books when it comes to recognizing the winner of the 2020 Auburn game. Arkansas won. We all know it.
But entering this fall, there was still ample anxiety in the fanbase regarding the quarterback position.
Feleipe Franks was already a seasoned SEC veteran when he arrived on campus, and he played the role well during his only year with the Hogs. His departure for the NFL left a massive unknown in the middle of the offense.
KJ Jefferson had eased minds to some degree with a strong showing against Missouri toward the end of last season, but questions lingered.
Could he efficiently, consistently get the ball to Treylon Burks, Arkansas’ most gifted offensive player in a generation?
Could he force opposing defenses to devote resources to stopping the pass?
Could he orchestrate the offense?
Could he lead?
Consider those questions answered.
As a general rule, we Arkansas fans have always reserved our strongest affections for our native-born RazorbacksRazorbacks.
There’s an ever-present, defiant pride that bonds those of us who call the Natural State home and we celebrate those who share it. Even when it’s not as obvious as the 501 tattooed on Darren McFadden’s biceps, we recognize that it’s there.
From Ken Hatfield to all three triplets of Eddie Sutton’s hardwood to Greenwood’s Morgan brothers, they’re each one of us. Raised by the same village, rooted in our ways, sharers of our experiences.
A quick aside here: At least for me, this goes beyond athletics — I can’t hear “Wichita Lineman” or “Ring of Fire” or “The Weight” without telling my wife for the 400th time that Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash and Levon Helm are Arkansas boys.
It’s worth noting, though, that we’re also willing to adopt. It may be hard to remember at this point, but Clint Stoerner hails from the outsized flatland of dust, steel and asphalt directly to our southwest. And fellow Texan Kevin Kopps could probably walk away with any Arkansas public office of his choosing once his playing career is done.
Even Frank Broyles and the current head Hog had the misfortune to be born elsewhere.
And acknowledging that I might be imprisoned by the moment, I’d be willing to wager that we’re well on our way to adding another honorary Arkansan to the ranks, because the more we see from Jefferson — a self-described mama’s boy from a town of less than 2,000 in northwest Mississippi — the more we come to know what he’s about, the more he ably takes the burden of our hopes upon his broad shoulders, the more it looks like he’s well on his way to earning the status.
Six weeks ago, it was hard to believe that would be the case. With Jefferson misfiring on a number of seemingly simple throws, the Arkansas offense sputtered early in the season opener against Rice. Shortly after halftime, the Hogs trailed 17-7, everything looked disjointed and angst was rising quickly among the fanbase.
Maybe the only people who weren’t alarmed were the two who mattered most: Jefferson and his coach.
“I think KJ probably took a lot of heat this week,” Pittman told reporters after the Rice game. “Everybody’s got their opinion. But the one that really matters is mine. He’s our quarterback, and he’s going to be a heck of a quarterback for us.”
I’ll admit I was among those clamoring for a look at Malik Hornsby as drive after drive went awry. But credit to Pittman: he knew his quarterback better than we did.
In the weeks since, we’ve all learned a lot.
A temporary derailment against Georgia’s incredible defense notwithstanding, Jefferson has been gathering steam since leading the Hogs to 31 unanswered points in the final 23 minutes against Rice, most recently accounting for six touchdowns and more than 600 yards of offense last week.
Yes, he’ll miss some throws, especially when he’s rushing through play action and trying to unload it quickly. But he also throws a 40-yard deep ball with accuracy and ease. Then he’s got the corn-fed girth and country strength to plow through defenders, and the nimble feet to make them miss entirely.
And maybe most importantly, he seems unphased by anything, ever.
That 10-point deficit against Rice didn’t rattle him in the least, and he exuded first-quarter calm on a 75-yard touchdown drive in the game’s final 67 seconds last weekend against Ole Miss.
Jefferson has said he models his play after Cam Newton, and it’s easy to see shades of Tim Tebow and Dak Prescott in his game. All those comparisons to beefy QBs of SEC past who could befuddle opposing defenses on the ground or in the air make a lot of sense in terms of his size and skills.
But watching Jefferson week after week, I’m also reminded of the unflappable demeanor and even-keel of former Razorback thrill ride Matt Jones, noted author of the original Miracle on Markham.
Not a bad collection of comparables to build your offense around.
And make no mistake, this offense and this team are Jefferson’s as much as anybody’s.
He earned the respect of his coach and his teammates, who elected him as a captain, a long time ago. Now each week, he’s garnering the same from opponents and national media.
No doubt, the adoration of the Arkansas fan base will only grow each time he guts through an injury to run through a tackler for a win-clinching first down like he did against Texas A&M. Or each time he vaults himself over a defender and into the end zone from 12 feet away like he did against Ole Miss.
In his relatively short time as a starter, Jefferson is already building an impressive resume. Arkansas fans don’t forget quarterbacks who beat Texas (something else he has in common with Jones), he’ll always be a central figure in the team that broke the losing streak to the Aggies, and he led the offense to more yards than any Arkansas team has ever gained in an SEC game last weekend.
Now consider that we’re still in the very early stages of what we may come to remember as The KJ Era.
Jefferson started his first game at Arkansas in 2019, in what was officially a redshirt year. And though he’s now listed as a sophomore, thanks to the availability of a COVID waiver for players who participated in 2020, he could conceivably still be QB1 in 2024.
Perhaps more than any other individual, he’s the bridge from what Arkansas was at its lowest to whatever it will become. And even coming off of consecutive losses, the future looks pretty bright for Arkansas.
This weekend’s date with Auburn will determine a lot, but as of today, a 10-win season is still on the table, especially with the first bowl game in five years sure to come.
Pittman absolutely deserves every bit of praise he’s drawn, but we shouldn’t overlook Jefferson’s role in crafting that sunny forecast. As much as the Hogs have improved in all aspects, if we were seeing subpar quarterback play every Saturday, I think we’d all be much less bullish on the Razorbacks’ prospects in an SEC that’s not getting any more forgiving any time soon.
Halfway through the current season, in many ways we’re still figuring out what this team is. The offensive line and the defense have shown us good and bad days, the threats at receiver to complement Burks are still emerging, and it’s anybody’s guess which one of the running backs is going to pop on any given Saturday.
But we know what we’ve got at head coach, and it looks like we might have something equally special at quarterback. You need more than that to make a good football team, but it’s a fine foundation on which to build.
And all apologies to El Reno, Oklahoma (Pittman), and Sardis, Mississippi (Jefferson). You did a good job and we appreciate it, but as far as we’re concerned, they’re Arkansas boys now.
Arkansas native Brent Holloway is a freelance writer living in Gainesville, Ga. His “4th and 25” appears every other Friday at ARMoneyandPolitics.com.