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Jefferson in charge for Hogs

by Tom Murphy | April 18, 2021 at 4:10 a.m.
Arkansas quarterback Malik Hornsby (4) carries the ball during the second quarter of Saturday's Red-White spring football game at Razorback Stadium in Fayetteville. - Photo by Charlie Kaijo of NWA Democrat-Gazette

FAYETTEVILLE -- University of Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson displayed an improved touch on passes down the field Saturday in the Red-White Game at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.

The front-runner at the position entering the summer, Jefferson was locked in on his first four throws and guided his White team to a 17-3 lead after one quarter. He played only one series in the second half, and the Red team finished the day with a 30-20 victory to cap spring drills.

Receivers Treylon Burks and Mike Woods were on the receiving end of Jefferson's first four attempts, and three of the completions went for big plays. Woods brought in a 33-yard touchdown pass to get the White team on the board, then Burks had a 31-yard score toward the end of the first quarter.

"I'd have to go look back at every throw that he made, but I can tell you this: When I was standing out on the field, I was going, 'It'd be hard not to like this kid at quarterback,'" Arkansas coach Sam Pittman said. "He's big, he's strong, he's commanding, and he was on point."

Jefferson, who Pittman previously said had improved his accuracy in the team's final five practices of the spring, closed camp by completing 6 of 11 passes for 153 yards and 2 touchdowns. On throws traveling at least 16 yards downfield, he connected on 4 of 6 attempts for 142 yards.

Trey Knox caught two passes Saturday, including one for 42 yards from Jefferson in which he had to battle cornerback Hudson Clark for position. He added a 4-yard catch late in the first half.

Burks led all receivers on the White team with two catches for 67 yards and a touchdown, and Woods added 40 yards and a score on 2 receptions.

Pittman was pleased with the chemistry his top playmakers on the perimeter exhibited with Jefferson. Those are connections Jefferson is confident in heading into the fall.

"We've been working all spring on it," Jefferson said. "Coach (Kendal) Briles is a huge believer in giving guys a chance on the outside and going up and making plays. We've got playmakers, so why not give them a chance?

"As far as me, I put my trust in those guys. They trust me to put the ball in good spots, and they are going to make plays."

Pittman said Jefferson improved as a pocket-passer this spring due to him being off limits for contact. Pittman is confident once Jefferson is free to run and take contact, he will be able to avoid direct hits and slip tacklers.

"I just think that when we're able to run him, he's going to become a very, very, very good quarterback for us," Pittman said. "Right now, obviously, with tagging off, you're not calling any type of quarterback runs because (officials are) not going to give them many yards."

VERSATILE

Myles Slusher played some cornerback and safety for the White defense Saturday, and Eric Gregory took some work at defensive tackle to work on his combo versatility.

"I think Slush is so versatile," sophomore safety Jalen Catalon said, using Slusher's nickname. "I think he can play safety, he can play corner, nickel. He can play anywhere."

Gregory, who played only at end last season, had been spotted at practices playing inside in the Razorbacks' four-man front.

"Because of splitting the teams, it just gave us a really good opportunity to look at both of those kids at a different position," Coach Sam Pittman said. "Now we have looked at them in practice a little bit, but not a lot.

"But we wanted to put Gregory inside to see how he looks. Certainly Slush could be a corner for us, too. We know he's a great athlete and we want to give him as many opportunities to get on the field as we can. We felt like giving him a look at corner would tell us a little bit more about him."

ST. JOHN SMASH

The Red team's sideline went bonkers when Lucas Coley dumped a lateral to the left to 359-pound tackle Jalen St. John in the red zone early in the fourth quarter.

Freshman safety Jayden Johnson, a 206-pounder, rushed up to confront St. John and did his best to wrestle the big man to the sideline, where Andy Boykin delivered a late hit after St. John's 4-yard gain.

Coach Sam Pittman chuckled when asked about the St. John throwback play.

"He was a big ol' hoss to get down," Pittman said. "He had a lot of people riding him over there trying to get him out of bounds. It was just a lot of fun."

Pittman said both teams had one trick play. The White team's play fizzled when defensive tackle Enoch Jackson crashed through and touched KJ Jefferson just after he had taken a toss back from Trelon Smith on a potential flea-flicker pass. The sack went for an 8-yard loss.

SIDELINED

The Razorbacks had a substantial number of players unavailable for the game for various reasons.

The White team's group consisted of receivers De'Vion Warren and Tyson Morris, offensive tackle Dalton Wagner, tight end Koilan Jackson, defensive lineman Jalen Williams and defensive back Kevin Compton.

The Red team was without linebackers Hayden Henry and Levi Draper, cornerbacks Devin Bush and Khari Johnson, defensive linemen Isaiah Nichols and Jashaud Stewart, tight ends Colin Sutherland and Nathan Johnson, and receiver Beau Cason.

DOMINIQUE SHINES

Redshirt freshman running back Dominique Johnson averaged a game-high 9.8 yards, racking up 59 yards on 6 carries.

Johnson broke tackles on several of his runs and was able to get the edge on a couple before being tackled or ridden out of bounds. Johnson had runs of 22 and 7 yards on the Red team's first scoring drive.

Asked whether Johnson could factor into the rotation next season, Coach Sam Pittman said, "I think he has to. He's the big back.

"Obviously Rocket Sanders is another guy we're trying to groom to be a bigger back out there, but when he turns his shoulders and goes downhill, he's hard to bring down in the short area. We certainly hope that he will factor into that."

WHITE FLASH

John David White had a game-high 5 catches on 6 targets for 87 yards, including a touchdown, for the Red squad.

Asked whether White, who has flashed in practices throughout the spring, would factor in with the solid depth in the Arkansas receiving room, Sam Pittman said he would.

"Don't you like him?" Pittman asked after the question. "I mean, I love him. He can separate in his routes, he catches, he blocks, he's tough. There'll certainly be a place for him because he's earned that. I like him. I'm glad you asked the question."

IT'S GOOD

The Razorbacks went 5 for 5 on field goal tries, with Matthew Phillips going 3 for 3 for the Red team and Cameron Little 2 for 2 for the White team.

Phillips' makes came from 27, 24 and 26 yards, while Little converted from 20 and 38 yards.

"To be honest with you, our team needed that," Sam Pittman said. "We needed to see our guys make field goals. It was certainly a positive for me."

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