On Dec. 2, 2022, Arkansas coach Sam Pittman finally let out a huge sigh of relief. That was the day star quarterback KJ Jefferson announced he would stay with the Razorbacks instead of going to the NFL or entering the transfer portal. Looking to close his collegiate experience on a high note, Jefferson has been a star in the making since his first career start in 2020.
"It was everything for us," Pittman told CBS Sports. "In this day and age of NIL and all that -- and we have it -- but it was a relief [Jefferson stayed]. Very honored and proud that he thought enough of us and our program to come back and see it through."
Pittman knew he had a program-defining player when Jefferson shined in his first start against rival Missouri on Dec. 5, 2020. Accounting for more than 300 yards and four touchdowns against the Tigers, Jefferson announced himself as the future of the program despite a thrilling 50-48 loss.
"I don't think any of us knew, besides him, how great of a football player he was until we played Missouri and Feleipe [Franks] was out that very first year that we got here," Pittman said. "We didn't score enough, but we scored 48 with him in his first start. We got beat, but what a great day he had. Certainly, at the end of that day, I knew that he is the future for us."
Pittman's trust -- even after a loss -- was reassurance for Jefferson.
"My confidence went through the roof just being out there to showcase my talent," Jefferson said. "It was my first game. I had a lot of eyes on me. I just wanted to showcase what I can do against another SEC team in a trophy game. Just being out there, after all my preparation, I just had to go out there and take advantage of the opportunity that was given to me."
Fast forward two years. Jefferson is coming off a regular season in which he totaled more than 2,800 yards of offense and scored 29 times en route to leading his team to a Liberty Bowl berth. The 6-foot-3, 246-pounder, whose skill set is comparable to 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, has made the Arkansas offense difficult to defend. He is one of the biggest -- pun intended -- reasons the Hogs finished second in the SEC in rushing at 236.54 yards per game a year ago, and why the ground attack should be a force again in 2023 for a Razorbacks team facing long () but nevertheless intriguing odds for an SEC title.
Pittman also made the switch from former offensive coordinator Kendal Briles' wide-open offense to veteran Dan Enos' more traditional passing style to aid Jefferson in his preparation for the pros. Enos and Jefferson's relationship seemed to get off to a good start during the first 15 practices of the spring; only one person on defense stopped Jefferson during that time: Pittman himself.
"The best stopper they have is me," Pittman said. "Nobody can touch home because if anybody's around him, I'll stop it. He always comes back, pats me on the hip and says 'You know I'd have scored there, right?' I'll give him a two-yard gain."
Jefferson's dynamic nature puts him squarely on Heisman Trophy odds boards. Currently at +4000 to win college's football's most prestigious individual, according to Caesars Sportsbook, Jefferson is even with Oklahoma's Dillon Gabriel and ahead of notable players such as Ohio State running back TreVeyon Henderson (+5000) and Clemson running back Will Shipley (+6000).
"I don't really pay too much attention to the Heisman, rankings and standings and things like that," Jefferson said. "Sometimes, I look at it and see my name in it and use that as motivation. I try to not get too overwhelmed with looking at achievements and all of that."
Though he may downplay it, as a program Arkansas benefited from the eyeballs Jefferson has attracted this offseason.
"It puts us in the national spotlight," Pittman said. "Great players can come out of Arkansas. They have for years. And, of course, we have more than just [Jefferson], but with him being mentioned in the Heisman, I think it bodes well for us, it helps us in recruiting and all of things."
The raw talent is there, but so is the leadership. If Jefferson is going to lead Arkansas into the SEC title picture, he needs to be a strong voice in the locker room. And his decision to return with a focus on winning the West (and in Atlanta) has already left an impression that has resonated throughout the program.
"He's the leader of the team on both sides of the ball," Pittman said. "He's 'The Guy.' We have several other players ... but he's earned the respect [of the entire team]."
Will the respect Jefferson has earned within the walls of the Arkansas facility lead to not only a Heisman run, but SEC West contention for Pittman and the Hogs? Consider the two attached at the hip. Jefferson has handled everything that's been thrown his way so far, and his final season in Fayetteville is primed to be his best one yet.