FAYETTEVILLE — KJ Jefferson doesn’t have to venture far to be pampered.
Less than a mile from the Arkansas driving ranges outside of Walker Pavilion is Spoil U Nail & Spa on Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. Within those walls, it’s a familiar face.
As he walks through the door, almost immediately he is pointed to a chair. In the past, Jefferson has tried to bring some of the Razorbacks’ offensive linemen with him, but they’ve been slower to hang on.
Usually it stops on its own. The staff always treats you well.
“Every Thursday I’m going to get my pedicure and manicure during the season,” Jefferson said this summer. “I feel like if I don’t do that, I might have a bad game. I tried it the first game (last season) and had a pretty good game.
“I kept doing it and it kept progressing and it kept going up.”
He is certainly superstitious and not a fan of deviating from the routine he has created two days before a game.
“I actually go there and every time I show up, they know what I want,” he added. “I go in there, pedicure and manicure. Let’s go. Let’s make it rock.
“You know I have to do that.”
During a week of games, Jefferson, who likens dissecting defenses to playing a video game, spends about two hours each day watching video on his own. He will watch more videos with the coaches and take steps to put together a game plan for the next team on the Razorbacks’ schedule.
In total, it consumes 3 to 4 hours of tape per day. This week, Cincinnati is in the spotlight.
There are also position group meetings, on-field practices and, for a player of Jefferson’s level, probably media duties. But by the time Thursday rolls around, it’s time for Jefferson to think about himself.
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Everything he does is geared towards making sure he’s in top shape on Saturdays. From there, Jefferson can lead Arkansas and his offense to the best of his ability and handle it very carefully.
Taking the reins after the previous two seasons and a year under transfer from Florida Feleipe Franks, Jefferson was one of the SEC’s season stories in 2021. But his first season as the Razorbacks’ starter began with some bumps in the game. way in terms of accuracy, which was a concern going in.
Jefferson threw a touchdown and two interceptions in Arkansas’ first two games against Rice and Texas. But in the team’s last 11 games, he has recorded 20 touchdown passes against two teams.
The challenging start reminded the quarterback of a stretch of his high school career, and he built on that experience.
“In high school I came out in the first two games and threw like two interceptions and the next game I threw one,” Jefferson recalled. “I told my coach and my team, ‘You don’t have to worry about me throwing any more interceptions.’ For the rest of the season, when I was in high school, I only had three interceptions. Going off to college, the same thing happened. I told my team again: ‘You don’t have to worry about me losing the ball for the rest of the season.’
“Having said that, I’m locked into that mindset, like, ‘Hey, if I’m giving the ball away, I’m putting my guys in a bad spot and this team in a bad position to win.’ With me and everyone looking at me, if I take care of the ball and push it down the field and make sure I make good decisions, then I’m putting my team in the best position to win.
“I’m always thinking of them more than myself.”
Ball safety is a constant topic of discussion with Jefferson and offensive coordinator Kendal Briles at team meetings, before games and during games. Briles learned from his father, Art, that a team has a 75% chance of winning a game if it is plus-1 on the losing side.
Those odds drop to 25% if that team is in the red draw.
Jefferson’s 2021 season was unique in terms of taking a fair amount of shots down the field while keeping the ball largely out of harm’s way. Not only was his interception rate low, but his interceptable passes — passes that could have been intercepted but weren’t — were few and far between.
That level of valuing possession, he said, goes back to all the time he spent watching movies and understanding covers, deciphering disguises before the shot and making sure the covers are adequate for potential blitzes. Jefferson focused much of his spring on the mental side of the game and being a disciplined leader.
“Just knowing where the ball needs to go,” Jefferson said. “It all comes down to a time perspective. Take care of the ball, you have many chances to win. The goal and mentality of this team is to be able to take care of the ball on the offensive end and give ourselves a chance to win each and every game.
“(Briles and I) talk about anything. We talk about more things not related to football than football. It just shows how much trust I have in him and the bond we share and how amazing he is. Then just coming back another season and being able to be in their system once again, I’m trying to put up numbers and dominate the SEC.”
Jefferson’s goals this summer included managing his weight, being consistent on and off the field and enjoying his time off. His goal was to get to 230-235 pounds and stay in that range for next season.
Given his numbers a season ago (3,340 yards, 27 touchdowns), a skinnier Jefferson could be even more of a problem for opposing defenses. And he can help his cause with minds to the next level.
Assessing his first successful run through a schedule with control of one side of the ball, Jefferson’s best takeaway was that he impacted both. He did it with his voice, which has power.
“When I’m just talking or going to say something, it grabs everyone’s attention and everyone is very attentive,” he said. “Just knowing that my voice is powerful and that people will follow what I say, basically. I can say something here and there and hold others accountable, making sure they live up to the expectations that the coaches are trying to instill in us and trust. Believe. That’s the main thing – just believe what they say and trust the process.
“Anytime I’m going to lead or step up in a critical situation when the coach needs a leader to step up or a captain to step up, I can step up for him and lead my team. . I watch everyone lock in and pay attention.”
Jefferson is increasingly confident talking to the team in various settings, largely due to Arkansas’ strength and conditioning staff. He has urged her to come out of his shell more.
He also took notes on Grant Morgan, Hayden Henry and other outspoken players who have moved on in recent years.
On the field, he qualified 90% in the spring, according to Briles. The quarterback’s confidence is what also caught the eye of Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman in that stretch.
“The biggest improvement I’ve seen is just the knowledge of watching the game before it happens — pre-shot looks, things of that nature,” Pittman said. “He’s much better at his readings than he was at any time last year. He is a much better player than he was last year.
“It’s because he sees the game faster. He’s mature, older, stronger, things of that nature. I think he’s really improved a lot.”
Jefferson has a lot to remember and smile about from his 2021. One half before the season considered him the 14th starting quarterback in the SEC. He proved the skeptics wrong. The best part of being discarded, he said, is that those people never see you coming.
Jefferson is perhaps in the top three in that category entering Week 1 due to past production and momentum built late last season. He completed 76.3% of his 97 pass attempts in November for 921 yards and 6 touchdowns.
He also added 245 rushing yards and a touchdown in the last five games. But his numbers are far from what makes him most proud.
“Making history. I would say that was the main thing,” said Jefferson. “Going through my recruiting process, I didn’t want to be a part of history. I wanted to make my own. To be able to have a story to tell my kids when I have one.” and being able to focus on the journey ahead of me right now.
“I had fun just seeing the faces of my teammates and the older guys who were here and were able to win back all three trophies for Arkansas State and each other.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Hawgs Illustrated Football Preview issue.