2021 PREVIEW: Catalon leads talented group in Razorbacks’ back end

Arkansas DB Jalen Catalon / Photo: ArkansasRazorbacks.com

One of the easily noticeable improvements established in the first season of Sam Pittman’s Arkansas Razorbacks regime was the intensity and tenacity the Hogs brought to the field with their defensive unit.

While the Razorbacks still struggled during their 10-game, all-SEC schedule that was deemed far and wide as the toughest schedule in college football, the attitude and hustle of the defense improved immensely under the coordination of Dave Odom, who personally coached the Razorback safeties and Sam Carter who guided the cornerbacks.

The Razorbacks once again were headhunters in the back end who took pride in playing clean, but also rattling the teeth of opposing receivers and runners with bone-jarring hits. The new attitude and approach was noticeable from the first game when the Hogs led Georgia at halftime before eventually succumbing to the then top-10 ranked Bulldogs.

Leading the way was a redshirt freshman, who immediately began endearing himself to Razorback fans old and young with crunching hits. Jalen Catalon (5-11, 198) is still an underclassman going into his sophomore season, but the mature, articulate sophomore no doubt is a leader in the Razorbacks’ secondary and on the defense as a whole.

He’s already been pegged to have an All-SEC type season this fall by the media, and if he stays healthy he could garner All-American honors, too. He’s that reliable and that good.

Old Hog fans compare his hits to Razorback greats like Wayne “Thumper” Harris or Steve “The Smiling Assassin” Atwater.

Catalon is not as rangy as the 6-3 Atwater. He’s more compact, but the comparison to Razorback greats like Greg Lasker, Kenoy Kennedy, or Ken Hamlin is apt. He’s a better athlete than Tony Bua, but he seems to enjoy “bringing that wood” and playing with the same type of abandon that Bua did.

Part of it was probably because of the smaller crowds last season with cover-19 protocols in effect, but Catalon’s best hits were audible from the stands last fall. It was just a different kind of crunch when he exploded into the ballcarriers.

Catalon was the third-leading tackler on the team with 99 total stops, including 51 solos. He broke up 4 passes and made 3 interceptions for 44 yards in returns. Most of his business was done downfield, but he also made 4 stops behind the line of scrimmage for 7 yards in losses. He forced 2 fumbles and made one recovery.

Catalon is the ring leader of the Hogs’ back end, where Odom often deploys three or more safeties with two cornerbacks. Odom and Carter cross train their players at both positions to add versatility, which is a necessary component in defending the back end against today’s up-tempo, pass-happy offenses.

The position groups proved to be reliable considering the deficits the Hogs’ defense faced last season along the line and with the impact covid-19 and the stress of an all-SEC schedule added to the mix.

The good news is all the key performers will return. They should be even better prepared and more comfortable performing in Odom’s system, despite the plan for using a four-man front more often than last season.

The Hogs gave up an average of 383 yards passing last season No doubt, Odom and Carter would like to see that number dip lower this season, but a secondary can only be as effective as its defensive line allows. The Hogs did account for 13 interceptions, playing bend-but-don’t-break principles.

Catalon usually plays down the middle and will be backed by junior Malik Chavis (6-2, 198), who also brings some pop to the field.

Junior Simeon Blair (5-10, 207) could be a Razorback that comes into his own this season at strong safety. Competitive and meticulous, Blair is another leader in the backfield for the Hogs, who made 23 stops last season. He is running ahead of sophomore Myles Slusher (6-0, 196) who is one of the most versatile Razorbacks in the secondary. Smart and athletically gifted, Slusher can also play corner and nickel back in Odom’s system, making him key in the Razorbacks’ plans

Senior Joe Foucha (5-11, 206) is another hard hitter who plays the boundary. Athletic with a nose for the football, Foucha was in on 60 tackles last season, breaking up 3 passes and making 2 interceptions. Freshman Jayden Johnson (6-2, 215) entered school early this spring after graduating high school in December, but he has already made a mark thanks to his mature attitude and natural ability. He’s a rangy athlete who could grow out of the position if he continues to add good weight as he did in the spring.

Junior Greg Brooks Jr. (5-11, 188) is the Hogs’ nickel back, who made 39 tackles, 2 interceptions, broke up a pass and 2 quarterback hurries in 2020. Mature and talented, he often gets matched up against a slot or a tight end, but he never backs down. Junior Trent Gordon (5-11, 195) is new to the Hogs’ system after transferring in from Penn State, but he flashed good coverage skills in the spring and has the ability to help at corner or another safety spot.

Senior Montaric “Buster” Brown (6-0, 195), who led the team with 6 pass breakups in 2020, is poised to have a fine season. He is the Hogs’ best one-on-one coverage man, and he will be counted on to lock down his man this season. Sophomore Khari Johnson (6-0, 193) is a tough and physical performer who is at his best at corner, but can play safety or nickel. His versatile skills set and head-hunting instincts means he will see playing time this fall.

After an up-and-down sophomore season, former walk-on Hudson Clark (6-2, 180) returns as a probable starter at cornerback after cracking the starting lineup last year against Ole Miss. His preparation and intelligence helped him make all three of his interceptions against the Rebels. He finished fifth on the year in tackles with 47 and also had 3 pass breakups. Speedy junior LaDarrius Bishop (6-0, 196) will see time on the field this year at corner and perhaps a nickel after maturing last season and having a fine spring.

* This is the second in a position-by-position series previewing the 2021 Arkansas football team.