FAYETTEVILLE — Safety Jalen Catalon saw his 2021 season cut short due to a shoulder injury that required surgery.
In six games last fall, Catalon had 46 tackles, 22 solo, 1.5 for loss, two interceptions, four pass breakups and a quarterback hurry. But Catalon is back and made it through the entire spring practices though wearing a green protective jersey which pleased Sam Pittman.
“I know I was in green the whole spring,”Catalon said. “I think Pitt and the training staff and weight room staff did a great job of just maintaining me. I know Pitt talking into the doctors and stuff, they could have told me I’m good to go. I can go full, but why take hits on me when I don’t need to. They kept me in green, but talking to (Barry) Odom and I kind of talked to (Kendal) Briles too so the receivers knew what tempo I was. But everybody knew I was good to go as far as full speed, running around, blocking. I’m good to go. Play me as if I’m in red, but as far as going after anybody else, I’m going to tack off. Any time there’s a play on the ball, I’m going to do my full to make it.”
Despite being in green, Catalon put a pretty good hit on wide receiver Bryce Thompson on one play during Saturday’s scrimmage.
“I think it was a great play I made,” Catalon said. “Bryce has had a great spring as well. It was a good little throw over the middle. I just made a play on it, and it was a good effort.”
Catalon enjoys playing for Pittman and thus one reason he felt comfortable opting to return for this season instead of entering the 2022 NFL Draft.
“I’d say the one thing I like about Pitt is he’s always going to take care of us,” Catalon said. “But at the same time, the mentality we have as a defense is while we’re out there, we’re gonna go. We knew coming in, it was going to be more of the younger guys getting the reps and live action, but the moment we step on the field we know it’s time to go no matter what the tempo is or situation. We’re always going to go hard, and we’re just trying to make each other better. I think you saw it today that we were flying around and any chance we got an opportunity to take that rep, whether it was three plays, six or 15, it didn’t matter. We were going to go all out.”
The Razorbacks have continued to add depth to the defense and secondary. The Razorbacks have reached into the transfer portal to get cornerback Dwight McGlothern and safety Latavious Brini. There’s some battles going on for playing time in the secondary.
“I think it’s at an all-time high,” Catalon said of depth. “I think every day people are realizing you have to put your best foot forward. Because if you don’t, that guy you’re competing with may have had a good day and took his step forward. Every day I think everybody has been very detailed and focused on that, making sure everybody is in the right spot at the right time always because if you’re not, you might not be a starter the next day. That’s how I come in every single day. I don’t really care what I did in the past. This is a new year for me. So, every time I step foot on the field, I’m competing to keep my job. I’m always going to make sure I’m in the right spot and being a leader and making sure everybody is in the right spot so we can be a solid defense.”
Brini came from Georgia while McGlothern was one of two LSU players to opt for Arkansas.
“With Dwight, you know he’s my roommate, so I’m always watching film with him and talking with him,” Catalon said. “The one thing he brings is swagger. The first day he came in, he brought that swagger at corner that he was that guy, and he was gonna prove that he’s that guy. And every single day he’s been showing that. I mean, he’s that dude. Of course, there are a lot of other corners on our little depth chart that can make plays and have been making plays but he’s definitely a guy that stood out as far as his technique and just his mindset going in. I think he believes anybody you put in front of him, he can lock up, and tp play corner you gotta have that mindset or it’s gonna be a long day for you. He’s been a great addition for us and Brini’s been a great addition for us also at the safety spot. He’s been doing a great job of diagnosing plays and also just picking up the tempo. Changes from one defense to another can be tough but he’s picked up on it really fast, and he’s made plays throughout the spring so I’m glad those two guys have made a great addition to our defensive back room.”
While those two have caught Catalon’s eye, he’s also very impressed with former Alabama linebacker Drew Sanders, who was a five-star recruit at Denton (Texas) Ryan. What does he bring to the defense?
“Domination,” Catalon said “Like Trey (Knox) was talking about, I see it on film, he has a swim move that I’m trying to learn when I go blitz. Every single time he just does this move and it gets everybody. He has so much more in his toolbox, but like I said before, you can just tell that he’s been coached and he’s very fundamental. Every single rep that he takes, it’s detailed. And he knows how to hit the hole too, when that hole opens he’s gonna hit it. He’s a great addition next to Bumper (Pool), along with the other guys like (Kaden) Henley, (Jordan) Crook, Jackson Woodard, Chris Pooh (Paul). I mean, all those guys are making plays so our linebacker group is deep this year and I credit Coach (Mike) Scherer for how he’s bringing guys along and everybody playing up to tempo so it’s gonna be an exciting year – especially for that group, and I’m excited to see what they can do.”
Catalon talked about what it’s like welcoming in new players from the transfer portal. The Hogs have five on defense with possibly another two to be added on that side of the football.
“Honestly, it’s humbling because, like I said, for example, Brini,” Catalon said. “He’s a guy that played at Georgia. He won national championships, so he knows what it takes. He’s seen it happen firsthand. He was there for it, so when he got here he was able to implement a little bit of his mind of what he thought what he knew and stuff. And he kind of just said, ‘Hey, I like how you do this. How’s this go? Or, hey Bri’, I like how you did this. What’s this? I always say, you always want to be a sponge. It doesn’t matter how old you get. You always want to take in information because, you know, you can never learn too much, you know. You always can add stuff to your bag. I always like to say, ‘We always like to piggyback off each other.’
“Same with Dwight. Dwight’s helping some guys out at corner, too, saying how he did some technique stuff at LSU or things like that that can help us out. So, you know, I always say that if you don’t try to get better every day, I mean, you’re cheating yourself. So, every single day we’re piggybacking off those guys. I know Drew Sanders has also been helping out some linebackers, as well, with some pass-rush moves and some getting-off-block moves. I don’t think he’s taught anybody his swim move yet, but I’m guessing that’ll probably come down the road. The one thing I’ll say is those guys came in, and they bought into the system, and I think everybody’s seen that, and nobody’s afraid to say, ‘Hey, how do you do this’ or ask for help. I think that’s that’s the one thing that’s the most mature about our group.”
A player who came to Arkansas with Catalon from Mansfield (Texas) Legacy is defensive tackle Taurean Carter. He was injured on the third play of Saturday’s scrimmage, but was having an outstanding spring up to that point.
“Man, Taurean, like I said, I played with him in high school, and I always knew the potential that he had,” Catalon said. “He can be a wrecking ball in the middle when he really puts his head down and wants to. I think this spring he’s shown that. He’s been down and focused to the little details. I know Odom’s been telling me that he’s been doing a really great job, and I’ve seen firsthand, as well. I’m glad that he’s able to finally pick it up and realize that he’s going to be the guy along with Zay (Isaiah Nichols) in the middle, as well. I mean, he’s the guy in the middle. The defense goes as far as he goes. If he’s plugging up the hole, he makes it a lot easier for the linebackers. He’s done that this whole spring, so I’m excited to see him go into fall camp and just kind of pick up where he left off at. Then when the season comes, I know he’ll be ready to go.”
Catalon signed with the Hogs when Chad Morris was the head coach. He talked about what Pittman has brought to the program in his two years as head coach.
“I think I’ll piggyback what Trey (Knox) said, I think everybody has just gained their hope back,” Catalon said. “I think everybody’s proud to wear the hog now. I know we have a lot of die-hard fans, but everybody wears that Razorback hog now and they can feel proud about that and that’s what we want for the state. The fans, and even y’all invest a lot into this program, so we want to do the same for y’all. We want to make sure we come out and put our best foot forward because we know what y’all bring to us. So I think Coach Pittman just brought this little swagger back that we – blue chip. Every single time we go out we’re blue chip, we’re gonna play fast, go hard. We’re gonna play fast and we’re just gonna have this grit to us, I think the whole team has displayed that throughout the year so nothing different this year. We gotta keep that same blue-chip-collar that we have on our shoulder and just keep pushing and keep forward you know, just keep our head down and work.”
The Hogs will open the season on Saturday, Sept. 3, when they host Cincinnati in Reynolds Razorback Stadium.