In 2019, the Razorback football team rolled into Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on a seven-game losing streak with a true freshman making his first-ever start against the eventual national champion LSU Tigers.
The game ended with the Tigers handing the Razorbacks a 56-20 blowout loss in Tiger Stadium, nicknamed Death Valley. Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson went 7-14 for 105 yards before leaving with a concussion.
"(It was a) pretty cool experience just going down there,” Jefferson said. “The only thing I really remember is it being very loud down there, like extremely loud. Probably one of the loudest places I've played, so far. That's about the only thing I remember about Death Valley."
Jefferson’s first start gave him much needed experience playing in a loud SEC stadium, the only way to prepare for the hostile environments.
This time around, the Hogs are 6-3, and the Tigers are 4-5 and fighting for bowl eligibility. Arkansas is favored in the bayou for the first time since 2001, and Jefferson, now a redshirt sophomore, has developed into one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC.
"The main thing is I'm more confident now, confident in my decision making and confident in my play,” Jefferson said. “That's the main thing, going along being confident and making sure my guys have my back and I have their back."
Jefferson has completed 64.2% of his passes this season for 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns. The dual-threat quarterback also has 433 yards and five touchdowns on the ground.
The 2021 version of KJ Jefferson is not the same as 2019’s, and Jefferson’s teammates have noticed the difference.
"I just remember him being a raw, young guy, (who) hadn't really played a lot of snaps going into that LSU game,” junior tight end Trey Knox said. “Now, he has a certain swag about him. He knows how to carry himself on the field. He knows how to play with a certain kind of poise. Y'all saw it last game on the last drive, he just made great decisions, stayed calm, and made plays. That's what I think he is right now."
The 2019 LSU team was a powerhouse, with 16 players now in the NFL. It was not an easy squad to make his first career start against, but it made for valuable experience.
“Him being able to step up for us in that game, in that type of environment was big,” senior safety Joe Foucha said. “I think it helped him out a lot this year for those moments because every game we play is going to be a big game. And I feel like the growth that he’s had these last couple of years, I feel like that game prepared him the most because he was thrown in the fire and he did pretty well that game. You can see how far he’s progressed since then.”
Head coach Sam Pittman said he has noticed Jefferson’s improvement over the past two seasons as well.
“I think his confidence and how he sees the field (has improved),” Pittman said. “He’s throwing the ball better than what he did before. His reads seem natural for him…I feel like he’s just playing faster, and certainly smarter. All this experience that he’s getting has certainly helped him.”
Arkansas is bowl eligible for the second straight year, but Jefferson said the Razorbacks are not hitting the brakes.
“There’s no relaxing,” Jefferson said. “We’re trying to continue the run that we started with the UAPB game and just keep it rolling. We’re trying to finish the season on a good, positive note. We know we’re eligible for a bowl now, and we get to go bowling, but we’re still putting our best foot forward. We’ve got to finish the season strong.”
Arkansas will face off with the LSU Tigers at 6:30 p.m. Saturday in the Battle for the Golden Boot. The game will be broadcast on the SEC Network.