FAYETTEVILLE — Redshirt sophomore KJ Jefferson made his first home start in his career and the first half wasn’t pretty, but he helped lead the Razorbacks on an offensive explosion scoring the final 31 points in a 38-17 victory over Rice.
Jefferson finished the game 12 of 21 for 128 yards, a touchdown and interception. He also rushed eight times for 51 yards and two touchdowns. His first start came as a true freshman in Baton Rouge in 2019 and then 2020 he started the Missouri game when Feleipe Franks was injured. Was there a little nerves being at home in front of 64,065 fans?
“It was a little bit I would say,” Jefferson said. “Just coming out, just me having my first start here at home. My first two starts came on the road. Being here, the atmosphere, the crowd, all that, it kind of played a part in it.”
In the second half, the team trailed 17-7 with 10:21 remaining in the third quarter. What was your mindset as the Hogs scored the final 31 points of the game?
“My mindset was lead the offense,” Jefferson said. “The defense was helping us big time the first half. So second half, we just need the whole offense to get in rhythm and pick up the speed.”
Sam Pittman also thought maybe Jefferson had some nerves early on and that was obviously very understandable.
“I think so,” Pittman said. “If you really look at it, it’s his team now, and to be honest with you, I think the crowd, we didn’t have it. We did, but we didn’t. I think that would affect anybody. I mean, it affected me, running through the ‘A’ and all of that stuff. So, I think that might have affected him. Really last year, he started, but he really didn’t know if he was going to or not. It was all kind of up to if Feleipe (Franks) could play.
“But I think so. I’m so glad he had a better second half, ran the ball, and it’s unfortunate that we got a holding call on the option that he ran, because that was a heck of a run. So I think his confidence is back, but I think all of us had a little bit of nerves going into that game. I’m so glad that we won. We have so much that we can improve on, so much that we have to. But we would coach them anyway, but it’s nice that our kids came back. You’ve got to give our kids credit for coming back and winning the game.”
Pittman also pointed out that all the struggles early on defense certainly all weren’t on Jefferson.
“To me, that was probably it,” Pittman said. “He knew he could throw to our receivers and they’d get him. Let’s face the facts, early in the game, they weren’t helping him. We were dropping some passes. We had a lot of missed blocking assignments out on the edge, from inside-out. Especially on those little quick tosses that we had. We really worked on them. I don’t understand how we made that mistake, but we did. All of those things are correctable. But I think whenever he started running the ball, I believe he’s a guy that when he runs the ball, he’s a better thrower.”
With Arkansas trailing 10-7 at halftime, Pittman talked about what he told the team and also how he instructed them to get Jefferson more involved in one aspect of the game.
“We just made a lot of mistakes,” Pittman said. “The one thing I learned a long time ago is you have to figure out what is really the problem, and how big is the climb. We as coaches, we can bury these guys and you’re down three to a team you’re supposed to beat, and you can bury them. Then as soon as you score a touchdown, you’re ahead. We talked a lot about adjustments from our coaching staff. You’ve got to look in a mirror about things going wrong. You can’t just go, ‘Oh, he dropped a pass, he did this, he did that.’ That’s coaching. And we talked about running the ball up the gut. We were trying to get the ball outside too much. They have more speed, not size, and we were running the ball outside too much. So we wanted to adjust that and run the ball right at them, get KJ involved in the run game. That’s what we did. Our defense had the one bad play and left the guy uncovered on the post route, but other than that, I thought they played really well. We have to get better on defense too, now. At least, at the end of the game, we finished the game. You can’t play an entire game and only talk about the first half. You know what I’m saying? We did win, 38-17. There are some good things to build off, too, and we’ll do both of those.”
With it being the first game and fans back in the stadium Jefferson wasn’t completely surprised at the slow start.
“I mean, just coming out of fall camp, first-game mistakes, we knew they were going to happen,” Jefferson said. “We knew we were gonna have some adversity early on.
“In the second half we just came together as a team, most definitely. We all rallied together and stayed in each other’s ears and pumped each other with confidence. Leaders led and we came out victorious.”
Jefferson hooked up with super senior wide receiver Tyson Morris was a beautiful 31-yard pass to the Rice to the Rice 26 with 10:21 remaining in the third quarter. Jefferson scored on a 5-yard run five plays later to pull the Hogs to within three, 17-14.
“The play to Tyson Morris, that was big time,” Jefferson said. “The defense had got a stop, or something like that, a major stop. I told the offense before we went out there, ‘Hey, we know we’re going to score right here. We need to score right here to try to get ahead, try to put pressure on Rice.’ Came out, coach called a play, threw a good ball to Tyson and he ran a good route also. I just gave him a good ball.”
Morris caught a 9-yard touchdown pass with 4:07 remaining in the game from Jefferson that put the Hogs up 31-17. Jefferson talked about what that will do for Morris’ confidence.
“It raises it,” Jefferson said. “It sets it real high knowing that he’s been playing, had a great fall camp and knowing that those two catches and that touchdown also just raises his confidence level and just brings those young guys along with him, just knowing that they can be a big asset in this offense.”
If not for a holding call on a young wide receiver that probably wasn’t even a hold, but was called, cost Jefferson a 68-yard touchdown on an option run to the right. Jefferson threw to Morris to eventually get the touchdown on that drive.
“It felt pretty good,” Jefferson said. “When I finally got free from the safety, I heard Trelon Smith saying, ‘Go, go, go!’ That was the main thing. I knew I had to kick it in gear a little bit and try to boost it up a little bit. But it felt good knowing those guys block for me on the perimeter, and it starts up front with the big guys like Dalton (Wagner) himself, then getting up to the second level. All of it played a big part into my run.”
Pittman mentioned that when Jefferson runs he seems to throw better.
“It’s just me getting into that groove and finding out how the defense is playing, and can they tackle or can they not,” Jefferson said. “Just loosening up the defense as well. Me running, it brings the defense down, brings the corners down and that way we can just run our offense — RPOs, throw over the top and be aggressive.”
Even last year with Franks at quarterback the offense had several games where they started slowly. Jefferson talked about what needs to happen to get the offense off to a faster start.
“The main thing for us in this offense is mainly just starting fast,” Jefferson said. “We have to start fast and set the tempo from the first play and the rest of the game. I mean, coming out, we don’t want to start too slow and let the momentum get away from us too early. We’ve just got to come out, start fast and be aggressive.”
In 2019 Jefferson played behind Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel. Last year it was Franks. In this day and age when many players hit the transfer portal at the first adversity Jefferson didn’t do that. He stuck it out and now is the starting quarterback for the Hogs and a captain.
“The transfer portal was never on my mind,” Jefferson said. “When I came here, I knew I was going to stay here. Just being patient, I mean, patience just comes with being humble as well. Just being patient and being humble, that’s the main thing.”
At the end of his meeting with the media postgame, Pittman shared how he felt Jefferson played overall.
“Yeah it was a bad start,”Pittman said. “You know, I mean I can’t remember the score at halftime, I’m gonna get beat up for that. What was it? Ok we were behind. But we scored 31 in the second half and he’s our quarterback. So, you know, it was the entire half too. I mean, we snapped the ball and hit the motion guy. Guys I swear they didn’t happen in practice, but we did today and the only thing I can hold that to is nerves. But we finished the game out there with the last two drives. I’m proud of him, he’s gonna get better. He knows he’s got to play better. Hell, I got to coach better.”
Arkansas will host Texas on Saturday at 6 p.m.