The Arkansas Razorbacks put the nation on notice in 2021, finishing the season with a 9-4 overall record, their best in a decade. The Hogs also won four conference games, matching the amount of SEC victories they had in the previous four seasons combined.
Arkansas capped it all off with a 24-10 win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl, the first bowl appearance the team made in five years and its first bowl game victory in six years.
This didn’t happen by accident and it’s easy to believe Head Coach Sam Pittman’s team could be a force once more in 2022, with quarterback K.J. Jefferson projected to be one of the best at his position in the conference, if not the nation, this year.
“The main reason we were successful was because we bought in on what was instilled in us,” Jefferson said. “We wanted to make history and do something that’s never been done here before at the University of Arkansas. We bought into that mentality and we bonded together and we came out and competed.”
The most memorable part of the season was one that included something Jefferson has wanted to be a part of since his childhood. He recalls the moment as ‘pure magic’ as he watched fans pour onto the field of Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium after a 40-21 win over No. 15-ranked Texas.
“As a child, when you’re watching TV and you see big rivalry games with the fans rushing the field, you just dream of and imagine being out there with those guys,” Jefferson said. “So just to be in my shoes now and to have experienced that is a dream come true.”
That victory was a sign of what was to come, putting Arkansas on an early two-game winning streak which later extended to four, including a win over No. 7-ranked Texas A&M just a couple of weeks later.
Arkansas had to work through adversity in the three weeks to follow, collecting consecutive losses at the hands of Georgia, Ole Miss and Auburn before getting its feet back under it and winning three games in a row.
That loss to the Rebels, which marked the second of that streak, stung a bit for Jefferson. One reason being that it was such a narrow, 52-51, loss against a ranked opponent that came down to the very last second and the other being that the quarterback is a native of Mississippi himself.
Jefferson, who played out his high school career at North Panola High School in Sardis, Miss., holds the matchups against teams from the state a little bit closer to him. He kept that in mind when the Mississippi State Bulldogs traveled to Fayetteville two games after the Razorbacks’ loss to Ole Miss.
“The main thing was that I just wanted to be cool, calm and collected when we had the ball,” Jefferson said. “But, deep down in my mind, I knew that I had let one Mississippi school slip away and that I can’t let this one slip away.”
And he didn’t. Jefferson and the Razorbacks came out on the winning side of a game that once again came down to the final moments of the fourth quarter, ending in a score of 31-28.
Moving forward, Jefferson is looking forward to capitalizing on and building upon successes like this in 2022. The primary areas of focus of offseason improvement for Jefferson have been becoming a more vocal leader and making improvements as a passer – both areas in which he has made strides.
“I would say that I am overlooked as far as the progress I have made as a passer,” Jefferson said. “But me being able to create plays and be physical while running the ball has put a lot of stress on defensive coordinators and defensive players, having to keep tackling me over and over the course of a game. Wear those guys down.”
Jefferson says he believes his tough running style will be appealing to teams in the NFL whenever he chooses to take that next step, but that he wants to continue getting stronger throwing the ball and avoid going for the big play when it may not be there or presents a lot of risk.
“I just want to be more disciplined than I was last season, because there were times when I was getting greedy instead of just taking what the defense gave me,” Jefferson said. “This season, my biggest goal is just being disciplined, making sure I’m making the right reads and running the offense at a high level.”
Arkansas opens the season against Cincinnati on Sept. 3, which will serve as Jefferson’s first test.