It must have been so wonderful. Lead Texas A&M 14-7, ball in hand, goal line straight ahead of him, Arkansas QB K.J. Jefferson knew he could hit Aggie in the throat with a touchdown. Under the center, he charged forward and then tried to jump over the top of the crimson-white pile for a decisive claim.
Jefferson is 6 feet 3 inches tall and weighs 242 pounds. He is a powerhouse, almost unstoppable on the goal line. This time there was only one problem: he was not on the goal line. He started from 4th. And so instead of windmilling a touchdown, all he did was give the A&M defenders a juicy target. One throw later, and A&M went on a momentum-changing full-field touchdown, a 14-point turn that changed the rest of the evening and resulted in Arkansas’ first loss of the season.
The loss knocked Arkansas back nine places to 19th in the nation, a belly punch right before the toughest contender on the entire sheet, Alabama, came into town. Jefferson’s goal now is to set aside a disappointing past, prepare for a treacherous future.
“It all depends on how you respond and get back to work,” Jefferson told Sportzshala Sports on Tuesday. “You have to make sure it doesn’t split the team.”
Jefferson knows Arkansas missed an opportunity. If the Hoggs had continued to win on Saturday, they would have been ready for the national decider with Alabama’s number two. College GameDay would have likely picked Fayetteville over Clemson. He also knows that he has to forget about those “what ifs” and forget about this awkwardness, otherwise Alabama will pull a lot more out of him.
“You have to prevent the moment from becoming too important, stay on an even keel, take control of the roller coaster and stay neutral,” he said.
This is how Jefferson answers most questions, building up little swirls of wisdom and football aphorisms that lead to the central thought. It’s not unlike how his fortunes, and those of Arkansas as a whole, have changed over the past few years, from irrelevance to curiosity to defiance and menace.
After dating a 3–7 record in the 2020 season, head coach Sam Pittman and Jefferson led the Razorbacks to nine wins in 2021, more than the previous three years combined and more than Arkansas has managed in a decade. For the first time in school history, Arkansas has won all three rivalry trophies – Southwest Classic (A&M), Battle Line (Missouri), and Golden Boot (LSU). The Hogs reached No. 8 in the nation, and by the end of the year were No. 21 after beating Penn State in the Outback Bowl.
Leading the charge is Jefferson, who has leveled up after an impressive 2021 season. A true double-threat quarterback, he throws for 941 yards and throws eight touchdowns after one interception. On the ground, he averages 68.5 yards, throwing 16 carries per game, and already has four touchdowns. Alabama’s Bryce Young and Ohio State’s CJ Stroud (rightfully) get all the Heisman publicity they need, but Jefferson is on a path that could earn him an invitation to the ceremony.
“A big, strong guy who’s hard to handle, hard to fire, hard to ground,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said of Jefferson on Monday. “(He can) push stacks, run over people when he runs quarterback, very physical player. But you can’t underestimate this guy’s effectiveness as a passer. Really good, strong hand, he’s good at throwing the ball deep.”
“He’s our protector,” Pittman said recently. “He makes us go. He sets the tone for our football team.”
He also, like most of the star athletes of the NIL era, is his own mini-corporation. In addition to his football and classroom duties, he does NIL deals with Walmart and Old Spice. He advocates for philanthropy in his home state of Mississippi. He is the public face of the team that brought back pride to Fayetteville football fans.
It’s very hard, and Jefferson says he’s dealing with it by staying humble – repeating his “neutral mind taking control of the rollercoaster” mantra.
However, there are issues with maintaining a cold mindset when you’re the preeminent SEC defender. “There are more eyes on you,” he said. “You have to watch everything you do, every time you interact with different people. I’m just trying to show my true character, taking the time to make someone’s day better, whether it’s a photo, a ball signing, or a conversation.”
He relaxes with self-care like a manicure — “it eases my mind, allows me to think about something other than football” — and playing Madden, the technique, he says, allows him to slow down the actual game in front of him. . His featured team in Madden ’23: Miami Dolphins. (“I love throwing at these receivers,” he says, and unlike most Madden players, he’s on his way to doing it for real.)
Before he can think about life after Arkansas, he needs to get through this season while battling a schedule that ESPN hailed as the most durable Power 5 tablet in the country. Here’s what happens when you’re in the SEC West and on top of that you’ve scheduled two non-conference ranked opponents (Cincinnati and BYU).
Last season against Alabama, Jefferson threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns, keeping up with Young. Arkansas was within six points with less than six minutes left in the game, but Young’s 40-yard pass to Jameson Williams ended that dream. But Arkansas left Tuscaloosa with the conviction that more was possible.
“Alabama has been a tough team for I don’t know how many years. But the whole team thinks we can make an upset. It’s all about making the most of opportunities,” Jefferson said, “and succeeding.”