FAYETTEVILLE — When quarterback Feleipe Franks came to the University of Arkansas last year from Florida as a graduate transfer, KJ Jefferson knew he’d have to wait for his chance to start.
Franks had passed for 4,593 yards and 38 touchdowns with the Gators, but an ankle injury sidelined him four games into the 2019 season and Kyle Trask took over and established himself as the starter for 2020.
Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles bought in Franks to finish his college career as the Razorbacks’ starter.
Jefferson, now a redshirt sophomore, said he didn’t consider transferring.
“The transfer portal was never on my mind,” Jefferson said after Arkansas opened this season with a 38-17 victory over Rice. “When I came here, I knew I was going to stay here.
“Just being patient and being humble. That’s the main thing.”
Franks’ transfer worked out well for all parties.
Jefferson got another season to learn about playing quarterback in the SEC. Franks passed for 17 touchdowns and 2,107 yards to help the Razorbacks win three SEC games — triple their total from 2017-19 — and is a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons.
The No. 13 Razorbacks are now Jefferson’s team as he plays back in his home state of Mississippi today against No. 17 Ole Miss at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium.
Jefferson starred at North Panola High School in Sardis, Miss., about a 35-minute drive from the Ole Miss campus in Oxford.
“I’ve got a lot of family members coming to the game to watch me play,” Jefferson said. “They’ve never been to a game. So I’m pretty pumped that they’ll be able to make it and come see me play.”
Ole Miss was among the schools that Jefferson turned down to sign with Arkansas. His other scholarship offers included Mississippi State, Georgia, Texas A&M and Missouri.
“I didn’t really think that much of Ole Miss just because I wanted to get out of the state of Mississippi,” Jefferson said. “But Arkansas just took it away.”
Jefferson started against Missouri last season when Franks was injured and he passed for 274 yards and 3 touchdowns and rushed for 32 yards a touchdown in Arkansas’ 50-48 loss.
Throughout training camp Jefferson was the Razorbacks’ unquestioned starter and teammates voted him a co-captain, but he had a rough first half against Rice, completing 4 of 11 passes for 21 yards with an interception.
Jefferson rallied Arkansas to 31 consecutive points after Rice took a 17-7 lead in the third quarter. In the second half he completed 8 of 10 passes for 107 yards and finished the game with 89 rushing yards and two touchdowns.
“I think KJ probably took a lot of heat this week,” Pittman said two days after the Rice game. “Everybody’s got their opinion. But the one that really matters is mine. He’s our quarterback and he’s going to be a heck of a quarterback for us.”
Through five games Jefferson has completed 54 of 91 passes (59.3%) for 909 yards and 6 touchdowns with 2 interceptions. He’s rushed 40 times for 235 yards and 2 touchdowns.
“I think he’s improved quite a bit,” Pittman said. “He’s a better runner than what I thought he would be. He’s an accurate thrower. I think he’s had a good season to this point.”
Jefferson is built like a linebacker at 6-3 and 245 pounds.
“He can hurt you with his arm, but he can really hurt you with his legs,” Ole Miss linebacker Lakia Henry said.
Jefferson returned to the Texas A&M game in the fourth quarter after missing two series because of a sore knee — the numbing gel took time to take effect — and clinched the Razorbacks’ 20-10 victory with a 10-yard rush up the middle that allowed them to run out the clock. He passed for 212 yards and 2 touchdowns and rushed 8 times for 50 yards.
“Jefferson can drive the ball down the field, he’s strong in the pocket and hard to get down, and he hurt us with some deep balls in that game,” Texas A&M Coach Jimbo Fisher said. “Then on top of that, he’s very athletic and can run away from you.
“He’s got power and speed, which is very rare with a quarterback of that size. He’s developing into a really, really good player.”
Arkansas cornerback Montaric Brown said Jefferson reminds him of Cam Newton in terms of being a physical quarterback. Newton, the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn who has played 10 seasons in the NFL, is 6-5 and 245 pounds.
“KJ’s not looking to get out of bounds, man,” Brown said. “He’s going to take you head on.”
Ole Miss Coach Lane Kiffin also mentioned Newton when asked about Jefferson.
“The size is crazy, how big he is,” Kiffin said. “So that’s an issue, because it’s like a giant running back back there when he runs the ball.
“He’s improved on some throws. So he’s very dangerous.”
Pittman said Jefferson is an aggressive runner.
“He wants to run over people, which is a little scary at your quarterback position,” Pittman said. “I like his demeanor. I like how he’s running the football team.
“And I like him running the football. I think it puts different pressure on defenses when you have a running quarterback.”
Like all of the Razorbacks, Jefferson had a rough game last week when No. 2 Georgia beat Arkansas 37-0. He hit 8 of 13 passes for 65 yards and was credited with 5 rushing yards including sacks, though he had a 14-yard run.
“KJ went out there and gave it his all,” Arkansas receiver Treylon Burks said. “He did what he could for the team. I think his head is still straight on just by how he came back in practice this week.
“He’s prepared himself to go back home and play for his hometown, home state. I think it’s going to be a good game for him.”
Jefferson credited his teammates for his production and said he’s working to continue to mature as a leader by talking more on the sideline and making sure he has good body language.
“The main thing, I’m not trying to get too far ahead of myself,” he said. “I’m just taking it day by day, game by game, play by play.”
Franks and Jefferson worked well together as starting and backup quarterback last season, Pittman said, because both had the right attitude.
“I think KJ’s a competitor,” Pittman said. “I think in his mind he goes, ‘Hey, I’m going to get my chance if I keep working.’
“Then Feleipe took him in like he was his older brother, and said, ‘You need to do this, you need to do that, you need to do this.’”
Pittman said Jefferson and Briles deserve much of the credit for his play, but that Franks also does with how he led Jefferson.
“Because Feleipe understood, I think, exactly where he was in his career,” Pittman said. “He was like, ‘Hey, come on, follow me. I’m going to help you with this, and then when I walk out of here you’re going to be ready to play.’”