Criswell, Fortin play important role as Jefferson’s back-ups

Arkansas quarterback Cade Fortin (10) scrambles out of the pocket against Alabama during an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 1, 2022, in Fayetteville, Ark. (AP Photo/Michael Woods)

There is no doubt that senior quarterback K.J. Jefferson is the engine that will make the Arkansas Razorbacks go this season.

The Sardis, Miss. native has the chance to break numerous quarterback records this year, many by mid-season if he remains healthy.

Keeping their meal ticket healthy is of primary concern Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said Wednesday at SEC Media Days. The Head Hog even said that Jefferson, who is a bullish runner with uncommon speed, quickness and elusiveness for a man standing 6-3, and weighing 245 pounds, will probably not run the ball as much as he did last season in offensive coordinator Dan Enos’ pro-style offense.

Jefferson missed time in the Alabama game as well as all of the Mississippi State and LSU games last season. That accounted for half of the Hogs’ six losses.

Keeping Jefferson in the pocket more often as a passer instead of on the edge or up the middle as a runner should keep him healthier, or at least that is the idea.

But what happens if disaster does strike, and Jefferson does go down with an injury? What does the depth at quarterback look like behind the Hogs’ All-Conference candidate?

Pittman said that he does have confidence in transfer junior Jacolby Criswell (6-1, 224) and returning senior Cade Fortin (6-3, 215) if Jefferson can’t go for some reason.

Criswell is a native of Morrilton, who began his career at North Carolina and played three seasons for the Tar Heels before returning to his home state. He played in a combination of eight games for North Carolina the past two years, and appeared in six games as a freshman, which still allowed him to red shirt.

In high school he was the No. 2-ranked recruit in the state and was the 11th-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the nation by 24/7 Sports.

Then-North Carolina quarterback Jacolby Criswell (6) passes against Wofford during the first half of an NCAA college football game in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Hog fans became familiar with Fortin last season, who played in three games last season and started against Mississippi State when Jefferson was injured. He was 14-of-29 passing for 135 yards with seven carries for 17 yards.

Also in the mix will be freshman Malachi Singleton (6-1, 232) of Kennesaw, Ga., who is a slightly smaller version of Jefferson. He is a four-star recruit who enrolled early and went through spring practice to get a jump start on this season. He was rated as the 31st best player in Georgia and the No. 5 dual-threat quarterback nationally by Rivals.

Though you never know how games are going to go, there could be opportunities for one or more of them to garner some early playing time in the Hogs’ first two games against Western Carolina on Sept. 2 at Little Rock and against Kent State on Sept. 9.

From there the Razorbacks schedule gets very steep and rocky. If they see any more time the rest of September and all of October, it would probably mean that they were pressed into service by an injury to Jefferson.

Hopefully the injury bug won’t chomp down on the Razorbacks as hard as it did last season, but that possibility makes it almost necessary for Pittman and Enos to get Criswell and Fortin some time in those first two games. We’ll just have to see if the Hogs play well enough in their first two games early to get one or both of them some meaningful game time.

Arkansas Razorbacks 2023 football schedule

Countdown to Kickoff: 42 Days

Sept. 2 – Western Carolina at Little Rock (3 p.m. ESPN+/SEC+)
Sept. 9 – Kent State (3 p.m. SEC Network)
Sept. 16 – BYU (6:30 p.m. ESPN2)
Sept. 23 – at LSU (TBA)
Sept. 30 – Texas AM at Arlington, Texas (TBA)
Oct. 7 – at Ole Miss (TBA)
Oct. 14 – at Alabama (TBA)
Oct. 21 – Mississippi State (TBA)
Nov. 4 – at Florida (TBA)
Nov. 11 – Auburn (TBA)
Nov. 18 – Florida International (TBA)
Nov. 24 – Missouri – (3 p.m. CBS)