Arkansas Razorback quarterback K.J. Jefferson and his offensive coordinator Kendal Briles are entering into some uncharted waters together this season.
This is Briles’ eighth year as an offensive coordinator, holding the position at Baylor (2015-16), Florida Atlantic (2017), Houston (2018), Florida State (2019), and the past two seasons with the Razorbacks, but this is the first time he’s ever had a returning starter.
I’m wondering what he has up his sleeves to showcase an experienced quarterback in his system?
Under Briles’ coaching, Jefferson, a junior who looks as fit as he ever has in a Razorback uniform, returns as the Hogs’ starting quarterback, coming off an outstanding sophomore season as a first-year starter.
He passed for 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns with a 67.3 percent passing rating last season and rushed for 664 net yards to lead Arkansas in rushing.
Better yet, with Jefferson at the controls, the Razorbacks posted a 9-4 season including a victory over Penn State in the Outback Bowl. It was the Hogs’ best season in a decade and their first trip to a New Year’s Day Bowl since 2011.
Jefferson is the first returning Razorback starting quarterback since Austin Allen in 2017, but unlike Allen, who led an inexperienced offense during a disappointing second season as starter, the Razorbacks appear loaded offensively this season.
Hog fans are excited about the type of improvement they may see from Arkansas’ offense this season not only because of Jefferson’s talent and experience but also because of the talent and experience surrounding him.
Arkansas boasts a veteran offensive line with four returning starters and several promising backups including senior tackle Luke Jones, who played a lot of ball last season.
Even with junior Dominique Johnson likely out for the season opener Sept. 3 against Cincinnati, the Hogs have a talented stable of running backs led by Raheim “Rocket” Sanders, A.J. Green, and surprising freshman Rashod Dubinion.
Tight ends Trey Flowers and Hudson Henry are poised to have strong seasons, and while Arkansas’ receiving corps has been retooled, an influx of talent from the transfer portal and a solid freshman class is easing the loss of generational talent Treylon Burks, who left the UA after his junior season for the NFL.
Jefferson gave Hog fans a glimpse of his moxie and toughness in his first start in a tough loss to Missouri in 2020, but few expected him to play as consistently well as he did last year.
Granted he and his teammates had a tough first half in the season opener against Rice, but from the second half of that game through the Razorbacks’ bowl victory, Jefferson only showed improvement.
Taking down Texas and Texas A&M was a thrill in September. Lessons were learned in some tough losses in October, but Jefferson shined in November’s trophy-game victories, an overtime win over Mississippi State, and by pushing Alabama to the limit in Tuscaloosa.
Many wonder how Jefferson will adjust this season without Burks as a safety valve. It’s a legitimate question. Burks just needed the ball in his hands to make things happen.
The expectation is for the Hogs to lean heavily on their veteran offensive line and stable of powerful and quick runners to set up the pass this season. The Razorbacks led the Power 5 in rushing last year, and they might just do it again.
The more effective the running game is, the more opportunities the Razorbacks will have in the long passing game down field.
How well Arkansas advances in its mid-range passing game could be the key to unlocking a special year for the Hogs.
Arkansas may not have Burks as a go-to-guy, but transfers Jadon Haselwood (6-3, 211) of Oklahoma and Matt Landers (6-5, 203) from Toledo offer size and speed as do returners Warren Thompson (6-3, 193) and Ketron Jackson Jr. (6-2, 209). Fayetteville freshman Isaiah Sategna also has speed to burn and head coach Sam Pittman complimented the young man on how quickly he has already absorbed the offense.
It sounds as if Jefferson will have plenty of weapons at his disposal, but what interests me is what type of jump will he make with a year’s experience under his belt.
Certainly, defenses might be more wary of Jefferson’s abilities, but let’s be honest, teams like LSU and Mississippi State attempted to confuse him with all-out blitzes last season. They were effective, but the Hogs and Jefferson still pulled off close victories over them.
With Jefferson’s experience, he and Briles should be able to focus on the more technical bits of quarterbacking that can only be mastered after the more fundamental aspects of the position are second hand.
I don’t know if we can expect Jefferson to make the type of leap that, say, Joe Burrough did for LSU from his junior to senior season in 2019 — different player, different skill sets — but it is going to be interesting to see how Jefferson progresses and what new skills Briles will be able to draw out of the young man who has yet to play his best football for the Hogs.
The confidence Arkansas’ coaches and players are exuding this preseason in their interview sessions is different but tangible. It’s not cocky, but it is certain.
Pittman and his staff made an instant impact on this program and the demeanor with which the players carried themselves upon his arrival for 2020 season. I think it has taken root even more. This is a confident football team, and from all accounts Jefferson has grown into a confident and strong leader, which is a necessity at quarterback.
Like all Hog fans I’m counting down the days until kickoff against Cincinnati on Sept. 3. Fans should not dismiss the challenge the Bearcats pose, but I am excited to see the strides the Razorbacks offense makes this season with so much experience and talent under Jefferson and Briles’ direction.