Sam Pittman doesn’t wield a magic battle hammer like the Marvel super-hero Thor, but the Razorbacks’ head football coach will call upon his own version of thunder and lighting this season at the quarterback position with returning starter K.J. Jefferson and his backup Malik Hornsby.
The powerfully built Jefferson, a 6-3, 245-pound redshirt junior from Sardis, Miss., is the undisputed starter after leading a Razorback revival last year in which Arkansas finished the season 9-4, won the 2022 Outback Bowl, and placed in the Top 25 for the first time in years.
Jefferson is The Man for the Hogs under center. It’s unquestioned.
He not only passed for 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns, completing 67.3 percent of his passes, but he also led the Hogs in rushing last season with a thunderous 664 yards on the ground, which was second only to Matt Jones’ record 707 yards rushing by a Razorback quarterback in 2003.
However, the silky smooth Hornsby (6-2, 187) boasts electrifying speed and quickness that Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles sought to work into the Razorbacks’ offense with reverses and gadget plays at various points last season.
In season, the efforts didn’t bear much fruit, but Hornsby, who could also moonlight as a receiver at times this coming season, broke out of his shell in the Razorbacks’ 24-10 victory over Penn State in the Outback Bowl with 4 carries for 74 yards.
Hornsby’s ankle-breaking moves and gee-whiz speed turned heads at various points in spring practice, and his speed and quickness is expected to sprinkle in some spice on the Hogs’ offense in a variety of ways.
Hornsby, a redshirt sophomore from Missouri City, Texas, has a zip that’s uncommon even in the SEC, and Briles and Pittman plan to make better use of it this season as the Razorbacks seek to put together back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 2015 and 2016.
Though the Associated Press and USA Today have yet to release their Top-25 polls, the Hogs have been included in several other Top 25 rankings in the preseason as Pittman’s program begins to earn respect for the turnaround the Hogs have achieved over the past two seasons.
Jefferson’s talent and leadership played a large role in lifting the Razorback program out of the dumpster fire left by the disastrous two-year tenure of Chad Morris, whose program ground up quarterbacks like hamburger.
Jefferson was recruited to Arkansas by Morris, but the young man’s development under Briles has been impressive. His confidence and maturity was evident early last season in a come-from-behind win over Rice as well as “upset” victories over ranked foes Texas and Texas A&M, and he played well on an weekly basis even during a three-game October losing streak when the Hogs’ defense was attempting to bounce back from the loss of starting safety Jalen Catalon for the season.
Jefferson will be without his favorite target Treylon Burks this season, who is playing with Tennessee in the NFL. Burks was a special talent who could turn a simple screen into a touchdown in a flash. No doubt, Jefferson will miss his sure hands, but Jefferson’s development as a passer under Briles ought to help his relatively inexperienced group of receivers mature.
Hawgs Illustrated reported that Jefferson graded out at 90 percent in his assignments during spring practice, which is an outstanding percentage even for a returning starter.
As strong as his arm is and as nimble and powerful a runner as he’s proven to be, Jefferson’s best quality as a quarterback is his leadership, and that ability to lift and inspire his teammates is an attribute that is hard to quantify.
That ability to dig deep despite the pain and exhaustion late in a game is an inspiration to his linemen, backs, and receivers. Even the defense can feed off a positive and powerful performer like Jefferson, who leaves it out on the field.
The Razorbacks’ titanic schedule that not only features its regular SEC slate but also games with Cincinnati, which finished fourth and at BYU which finished 19th in the final AP Top 25 last year, might not leave a lot of mop-up duty for Hornsby.
Don’t be surprised if Briles peppers him into series at various junctures as a change-of-pace quarterback, particularly if it works successfully early in the season.
With the knee injury to Kade Renfroe, walk-on Cade Fortin is the Hogs third-team quarterback. He had a solid spring and has been around after transferring in after stints at North Carolina and South Florida.
It would not be a surprise for the Razorbacks to bring in another walk-on quarterback to help with the practice workload while Renfroe rehabs.
Over the decades, junior years have been mighty productive for Razorback quarterbacks. There’s no reason to believe that the upcoming season won’t follow suit and be a strong one for Jefferson, too.