It was going to be so perfect. Leading Texas A&M 14-7, the ball in his hands, the goal line right in front of him, Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson knew he could punch the Aggies in the throat with a touchdown. Under center, he jabbed forward, then tried to leap up over the top of the crimson-and-white pile for a decisive statement.
Jefferson goes 6-foot-3, 242 pounds. He’s a locomotive, all but unstoppable on the goal line. There was just one problem this time: he wasn’t on the goal line. He was starting from the 4. And so rather than thundering down a windmill dunk of a touchdown, all he did was give A&M defenders a juicy target. One punch-out later and A&M was off on a momentum-shifting and game-shifting full-field touchdown run, a 14-point swing that altered the rest of the evening and led to Arkansas' first loss of the season.
The loss knocked Arkansas down nine spots to 19th in the country, a gut kick right before the toughest opponent on the whole slate — Alabama — comes to town. Jefferson’s goal now: shrug off the frustrating past, prepare for a treacherous future.
“It’s all about how you respond and get back to work,” Jefferson told Yahoo Sports Tuesday. “You’ve got to make sure this doesn’t divide the team.”
Jefferson knows Arkansas let an opportunity slip away. Had the Hogs held on to win Saturday, they would have been set up for a marquee national matchup with No. 2 Alabama. College GameDay likely would have chosen Fayetteville over Clemson. He also knows he has to forget about those what-ifs, and forget about that fumble, too, or Alabama will peel a lot more out of him.
“You’ve got to not let the moment get too big, stay on an even keel, take control of the roller coaster and keep a neutral mindset,” he said.
Jefferson responds to most questions that way, spiraling out little curlicues of wisdom and football aphorisms that all lead toward a central point. It’s not unlike the way his fortunes, and those of Arkansas as a whole, have tracked over the last few years, from irrelevancy to curiosity to challenge to borderline threat.
After a get-acquainted 3-7 season in 2020, head coach Sam Pittman and Jefferson led the Razorbacks to nine wins in 2021, more than the prior three years combined and the most Arkansas had managed in a decade. For the first time in school history, Arkansas claimed all three of its rivalry trophies — the Southwest Classic (A&M), Battle Line (Missouri), and Golden Boot (LSU). The Hogs reached a high of 8th in the nation, ending the year ranked 21st after a win over Penn State in the Outback Bowl.
Leading that charge is Jefferson, who's leveled up since what was already an impressive 2021 season. A true dual-threat quarterback, he's thrown for 941 yards and eight touchdowns against one interception. On the ground, he's averaging 68.5 yards on 16 carries per game, with four touchdowns already. Alabama's Bryce Young and Ohio State's C.J. Stroud are (rightfully) gaining all the requisite Heisman hype, but Jefferson is on a path that could earn him an invitation to the ceremony.
“Big, strong guy, hard to tackle, hard to sack, hard to get on the ground,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban said of Jefferson on Monday. “(He can) push the pile, run over people when he runs quarterback runs, a very physical player. But you can’t minimize the effectiveness of this guy as a passer. Really good, strong arm, he throws the deep ball well.”
“He's our quarterback,” Pittman said recently. “He makes us go. He sets the tone for our football team.”
He’s also — like most star athletes in the NIL era — a mini-corporation of his own. In addition to his football duties and classroom work, he holds NIL deals from Walmart and Old Spice. He’s advocated for charitable endeavors in his home state of Mississippi. He’s the public face of a team that’s brought pride back to Fayetteville’s football faithful.
That’s a lot of weight to bear, and Jefferson says he handles it by staying humble — repeating his mantra of “a neutral mind, taking control of the roller coaster."
Still, there are challenges to keeping a chill mindset when you're a marquee SEC quarterback. “There’s a lot more eyes on you,” he said. “You’ve got to watch everything you do, every time you interact with different people. I just try to show my true character, take some time out to make someone’s day better, whether it’s taking a picture, signing a ball or having a conversation.”
He decompresses with self-care like mani-pedis — “it eases my mind, lets me think about something other than football” — and by playing Madden, a technique he says lets him slow down the real game in front of him. His chosen team in Madden ‘23: the Miami Dolphins. (“I love throwing to those receivers,” he says, and unlike most Madden players, he’s on a track to do that for real.)
Before he can think about life after Arkansas, he's got to get through this season, fighting through a schedule that ESPN projected as the toughest Power 5 slate in the country. That's what happens when you're in the SEC West and schedule two ranked non-conference opponents (Cincinnati and BYU) on top of that.
Last season against Alabama, Jefferson threw for 326 yards and three touchdowns, keeping pace with Young. Arkansas was within six points with less than six minutes left in the game, but a 40-yard pass from Young to Jameson Williams ended that dream. But Arkansas left Tuscaloosa with the belief that more was possible.
“Alabama has been a tough team for I don’t know how many years. But the whole team believes we could pull an upset. It’s all about maximizing opportunities," Jefferson said, "and finishing drives.”
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.