Arkansas Razorbacks football still feeling like underdog coming off turnaround season

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Arkansas won nine football games last season for the first time since Bobby Petrino's final two seasons in 2010 and 2011, but the Hogs aren't exactly feeling the love entering Year No. 3 under Sam Pittman.

"In the previous years, Arkansas was always slept on, and we're still dirt under a rug," redshirt junior quarterback KJ Jefferson told ESPN on Wednesday. "Now, it's just getting back that workman mentality that Coach Pittman instilled in us, just that blue-collar, hard-nosed, put-your-head-down mentality. Nobody's going to feel sorry for you, and each and every one of us have bought into that.

"This program has been on the rise, and we're going to keep building and get back on top where Arkansas belongs."

Arkansas was ranked 23rd in the AFCA preseason coaches poll earlier this week, but Pittman made sure his players saw ESPN's Football Power Index rankings, which had the Hogs last among the seven SEC Western Division teams.

"I took it down there to show the players, didn't tell them who did the rankings or anything, and I look around and say, 'We got 'em right where we want 'em,'" Pittman joked. "We won't ever have a problem of getting a big head until we ever get ranked 1, because I'll use it if we're 2, use it if we're 10 and use it if we're out of it. Our kids thrive on s--- like that because they know where we've come from."

The Hogs had lost 19 straight SEC games when Pittman took over as coach during the 2020 COVID-19 season. Their dramatic turnaround in Year 2 under Pittman included wins over both Texas and Texas A&M, the first time that had happened since 1988, the first of back-to-back Southwest Conference championships for Arkansas.

The Hogs' schedule in 2022 will again be one of the toughest in the country, as all 12 of their opponents qualified to play or played in the postseason a year ago. Arkansas opens the season at home on Sept. 3 against Cincinnati (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Bearcats played in the College Football Playoff last season.

"I mean, we love it when we get the hardest schedule," Jefferson said. "The Las Vegas odds come out and we're always the underdogs. We love it. It's just another chance to prove everybody wrong and come out with an upset. So we know we've got the hardest schedule again, and it's put up or shut up. It's the same as last year. Everybody was counting us out this time last year, too."

Jefferson was one of the SEC's breakout stars a year ago in his first season as the starter. He passed for 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns and led the team with 664 rushing yards and six more touchdowns on the ground. Jefferson completed 67.3% of his passes and was one of five FBS quarterbacks to finish with 20 or more touchdown passes with four or fewer interceptions.

In 2022, Jefferson is convinced he will be even better. Built more like a defensive end, the 6-foot-3 Jefferson is down to 240 pounds and wants to be closer to 235 by the start of the season. He played at 250 a year ago.

"I can tell it in the pocket, just being able to move around and get out quicker if I need to," Jefferson said. "I don't think a lot of people expected me to do what I did last year carrying 250 pounds. Now that I've dropped the weight, I think there will be a whole new explosiveness to my game."

Pittman said Jefferson has looked "lighter and faster" this preseason camp, and while Pittman would prefer that his quarterback not take as many hits this season, he will also be careful not to overcoach Jefferson.

"I remember in the Texas game last year, KJ broke away and had some open field and he sees the safety and goes running after the safety and there's this big collision," Pittman recounted. "The safety goes low on him, but KJ is trying to run over the damn guy. I say, 'KJ, man, you gotta run away from him.' He looks at me and says, 'Just trying to set the tone, Coach.' You want him to be smart, but you also don't want to coach that personality out of him."

Jefferson said having a third straight season under offensive coordinator Kendal Briles was a huge plus. Briles turned down a chance to go to Miami this offseason and remained at Arkansas.

"It's the discipline he brings and letting me know that you can't force everything," Jefferson said of Briles. "Everything that looks good might not be good. He's helped me understand the importance of making plays within the offense, not trying to do too much or going against what he's saying. I know when he's giving me a play that he's giving me that play for a reason and that he's trusting me to go execute that play to the best of my ability."