Analysis: What Jacolby Criswell Brings to Arkansas

Coming off of the 2022 season, diving into the portal for a quarterback was a move that not many saw coming. Despite the horrendous play that was the Arkansas backup quarterbacks, there was stock placed on an incoming freshman. The thought was that maybe coach Kendall Briles (at the time) would pursue a hole-filler backup, but things changed quickly. That’s the case especially when considering how coveted a player was that was placed center stage. One coveted even more so within the state of Arkansas.

Once Jacolby Criswell exited stage left from North Carolina, the move made all the sense in the world. The Arkansas native and former Morrilton Devil Dog had paid his dues to time spent in Chapel Hill and vowed to come back home. Brought in to play in Briles’ offense as one of Arkansas’ first portal additions, his coach’s departure hasn’t changed his heart. With a path to Fayetteville that only Criswell could have carved, there were tough decisions made along the way.

Background

His time at Morrilton high school wasn’t as fluid as he would’ve probably liked it to be. After exploding onto some radars during his sophomore season, it would be followed by injury in his junior year. While still managing to play in five games pre-injury, his college future would have to ride on his senior year performance. 

Criswell answered the call by not only throwing for nearly 3,000 yards, but also rushed for over 1,200 yards and racked up a heaping stack of touchdowns. His play earned him many award list placements, but most importantly the Arkansas’ Gatorade Player of the Year. As Criswell continued to market himself, he would show off at the Elite 11 competition and finish seventh among many other quality QBs. 

Every ounce of marketing his game paid off in the form of every primary recruiting service tabbing Criswell as a four-star athlete. As a unanimous top-300 caliber player, Criswell seemed like a lock to become a Razorback. Prepare for some memories that had been left untouched for some time. 

Criswell Recruiting Conundrum

As a member of the 2020 recruiting cycle, Criswell happened to share his graduation year with a certain coach’s son. That player being Chandler Morris. Under the reign of terror brought by coach Chad Morris, there was zero doubt who his QB1 for the class was. Despite Criswell having an outward desire to be a Razorback, the attention and phone calls never truly came. As he began to consider other Power Five options, Chandler Morris would commit to the Hogs.

The story well told to this point then took place as coach Morris was ousted from his position, causing a decommitment from his son. Inserting coach Pittman with very little time to convince Criswell to stay home, he couldn’t be pulled away from UNC. With a blue print set out to study behind Sam Howell and eventually take over, the deal seemed pretty sweet. It wasn’t so practical, however. 

 With below average quarterback play and COVID factoring in during his freshman season, Criswell found the field in certain situations. Attempting four passes the entire year, he would use his legs five more times. His sophomore season would thrust him into the starting role for one game, but nothing impactful became of it. Sam Howell would continue to start games the rest of the season, slapping a redshirt on Criswell. With untapped potential for the 2022 season, he would have to duel with who became a true freshman sensation. 

Battling tooth and nail with Drake Maye as one of the bigger QB battles at the time, Criswell would lose the starting job at the end of fall camp. As the humble man that he is, Jacolby chose to stay aboard the ship during the 2022 season. After witnessing the true talent and borderline Heisman type numbers Maye produced, there was no way around the truth. Criswell would need to look for a new situation. That’s when Sam Pittman came in. 

Offering the same compassion and genuine personality he likely did back when Pittman got the job, Criswell’s time in the portal didn’t last long. Walking into a similar situation as he did going to UNC, he’ll get some time to marinate behind KJ Jefferson before preparing for battle. Now with time and game experience under his belt, let’s look at what Criswell showcases for future Arkansas offenses.

Arm Strength on Display

Suiting up in an Arkansas uniform for the first time in the spring game he didn’t wait to showcase his biggest feat. Speaking of the game, his unofficial final line had Criswell at 87 passing yards going 8 of 12 passing. There was one play in particular that would’ve sent his yardage numbers into overdrive. On a play that was blown dead due to a ‘sack,’ Criswell launched a 50+ yard bomb for a touchdown. Unfortunately it won’t show up in the stat column, but it was impressive to see nonetheless.

His arm strength isn’t just the kind that allows him to heave the ball deep Joe Milton style as it’s an all-around strength. In other words, velocity is another key point. Flashing back to his high school tape, slant routes were his best friend. As a quarterback still expanding his game through the air, it was his most dependable route. There are seemingly no accuracy issues on the short yardage bullets as well. 

The zip he can put on footballs should also translate over to being a force on curl routes. Even in times where coverage might be tight on such quick cut routes, all coach Enos can hope is for accuracy. As with any pitcher, possessing an elite fastball isn’t always going to be enough. Criswell thankfully can utilize his arm strength in different facets.

Balancing out his ability, he has great precision when lofting passes, especially near the end zone. While those passes are often to bigger, mismatched targets, that also flashes Criswell’s football IQ. While the amount of showcasing in this area is at a minimum, it’s an ideal aspect in a player with very little game experience. Considering that Criswell attempts to laser the majority of his passes, secondary release styles being above average is an absolute plus. It will just be a matter of how confident he can become in air dropping certain passes over the top rather than attempting a bullet pass.

Patience

Looking back to his time at Morrilton and UNC, there are a ton of flashes of certain qualities that can’t all be titled. The broad umbrella of ‘patience’ should cover them hopefully. Shifting to his game as a runner is where Criswell is most patient even as a QB. He understands waiting and sneaking behind lead blockers on designed runs primarily. That leads him to finding and shooting gaps at a much better success rate than other quarterbacks.

One aspect as a runner that brings both positives and negatives is that Criswell allows the edge to get set. Considering he’s a quarterback that lacks super quick feet, if a lineman gets beat to the punch you can chalk that up as a TFL. In best case scenarios with successful blocking, his ball carrier vision can take over and produce chunk plays. 

As a passer, his pocket awareness is stellar for the lack of experience he has. Criswell is noted for having a sixth sense to step up in the pocket, but can be overzealous in that aspect at times. That’s what created the ‘sack’ in the Arkansas spring game, eliminating the long touchdown. As far as sensing pressure and rolling outside the pocket, Criswell is noted for that as well. 

When ruckus arises in the pocket he often rolls opposite of said pressure. That’s something that can take time to develop. Adding on to the impressive aspects of not forcing anything when under pressure, Criswell has shown he can keep his eyes downfield when under the heat. That’s something that he can further develop under the wing of KJ Jefferson for a year as he also does that quite well. Not to mention, NFL scouts love such a trait. Will all of those aspects translate to knowing when to scramble or stay in the pocket? There’s not a ton of snaps to make a valid answer just yet, but it’s a heck of a start.

What does he mean for the future at the position?

Remember the mention of that 2020 quarterback class that Criswell was a part of? Well the one player Arkansas stole last second in the class was Malik Hornsby. He has since transferred down to San Marcos. The horror story that was the Arkansas quarterback room last year will thankfully not have a sequel. Criswell’s biggest aspect brought with him – especially this season – is that he will be a solidified backup for year one. 

Not only that, but Pittman has been noted saying that he believes the team can win games with Criswell as QB1. Not that we need to think about disaster-proofing just yet. His presence alone during the spring and eventual fall camp should also be a benefit to challenge KJ Jefferson more than years prior.

Looking to next season, it seems pretty easy to plug him in as the projected starter. However, the way Singleton slung the rock in the spring game may pump the predictive brakes slightly. Maybe the play of both players can create a QB battle where the fans can’t see through the coaches’ lies. In other words, maybe a true battle can finally take center stage in the fall. One cannot forget that four-star KJ Jackson will also be marching into Fayetteville next year as well. 

Looking at the scheme and assuming Dan Enos remains at least one more season, there wouldn’t need to be any shifting in style. Obviously KJ Jefferson and Criswell don’t have a mirrored play style, but both players have high football IQ in the same areas of the game. With that being the case, have Jacolby learn the system in year one and be primed to ultimately take over in year two. With what would likely be two seasons as the starter, maybe the Hogs can finally have a seamless transition of power at the quarterback position for once. Criswell certainly has the tools to make that a reality.