Jefferson overcomes slow start, finishes strong
FAYETTEVILLE — With two previous starts under his belt, KJ Jefferson isn’t a rookie by any means.
However, Arkansas’ opener against Rice on Saturday did mark the redshirt sophomore’s first career start inside Reynolds Razorback Stadium and he didn’t make a solid first impression in from of his home fans.
Jefferson’s first four passes fell incomplete and he was just 4 of 11 passing for 21 yards in the first half, with several sailing on him. He and head coach Sam Pittman both acknowledged that he nerves and pressure might have been a factor in the slow start.
“I think that would affect anybody,” Pittman said. “I mean, it affected me, running through the 'A' and all of that stuff, so I think that might have affected him.”
It also didn’t help that the Razorbacks’ wide receivers were dropping passes left and right.
De’Vion Warren dropped one and even preseason All-American Treylon Burks - with his 5XL hands - showed some rust with two dropped passes.
“Let's face the facts, early in the game, they weren't helping him,” Pittman said. “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.”
The result was an ugly half of football in which Arkansas had five three-and-outs on its first seven possessions. When the Razorbacks managed to actually move the chains, Jefferson sliced through Rice’s defense with his legs to score a touchdown on one, but then threw an interception on the other.
With the offense struggling to get things going, Arkansas had to lean on its defense and that side of the ball responded by limiting the Owls to just 10 points despite an average starting field position at the 50.
“We always tell the offense, ‘It doesn’t matter what (happens), we’ve got your back,’” safety Jalen Catalon said. “KJ had a rough start, but he came in and did his thing and showed that he can handle adversity. I know he’s the guy for sure.”
Doing “his thing,” as Catalon said, meant Jefferson opening things up down the field and getting more involved in the run game.
After Rice scored to go up 17-7 early in the third quarter and a long kickoff return by LaDarrius Bishop, Jefferson took his first deep shot and Tyson Morris rewarded him by making a one-handed catch with a defender draped all over him.
Throw in a few runs - including a 5-yard touchdown to cap that drive - and the 6-foot-3, 245-pound quarterback looked much more comfortable running the offense in the second half.
“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.”
On the ground, Jefferson finished with 89 yards and two touchdowns on nine carries. Those numbers would have looked even better had it not been for a questionable holding call on Ketron Jackson Jr. that turned a 68-yard touchdown run into just a 38-yard run.
“When I finally got free from the safety, I heard Trelon Smith saying, ‘Go, go, go!’” Jefferson said. “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.”
Not only did it take seven points off the board and a third touchdown off his stat sheet, but it prevented him from cracking the 100-yard milestone. That’s something an Arkansas quarterback hadn’t done since Matt Jones was giving the SEC fits from 2001-04.
He did, however, manage to rip off the two longest runs by an Arkansas quarterback since Matt Jones’ 72-yard touchdown run against Ole Miss in 2004, with his 34-yard touchdown run in the first quarter and penalty-shortened 38-yard run in the fourth quarter.
“The big thing he did is he challenged the heck out of us every time he ran the ball,” Rice coach Mike Bloomgren said. “Like, he averaged 9.9 a carry and that is a large human over there.”
Jefferson was much better through the air after halftime, too. He completed 8 of 10 passes for 101 and a touchdown in the second half.
He told reporters that the team knew it’d hit some adversity early on with normal first-game mistakes, but said the team came together well. His mindset was to lead the offense and help them get into a rhythm.
“The main thing was just me settling down and playing ball, basically,” Jefferson said. “Just cool, calm and collected, maintaining my composure, making sure I pump confidence into the guys up front, letting them know it’s my fault. It’s not always their fault.”
The second-half performance might not calm the fanbase and silence the calls for backup quarterback Malik Hornsby, but it did reinforce his status on the team.
Not only did Catalon say “he’s the guy,” but Pittman said he gained a lot of confidence with how he finished the game, leading the offense to scores on five of the last six possessions of the game.
“It was a bad start…but we scored 31 in the second half and he's our quarterback,” Pittman said. “I'm proud of him. He’s gonna get better. He knows he's got to play better.”
Jefferson will have to get better in a hurry because Arkansas welcomes Texas to Fayetteville next week. The Longhorns were ranked No. 21 in the preseason AP Poll and opened the season with a 38-18 win over No. 23 Louisiana.
Kickoff is scheduled for 6 p.m. CT Saturday and the game will be televised on ESPN.