Experienced Newcomer Quits Arkansas Football Team Just as Secondary Depth Was Looking Good

AJ Brathwaite Jr., Arkansas football, Western Kentucky football, transfer portal
photo credit: WKU Athletics

AJ Brathwaite Jr. has left the Arkansas football program after only a few months, a team spokesman confirmed to Best of Arkansas Sports on Thursday.

The defensive back transfer from Western Kentucky figured to be part of the Razorbacks’ secondary rotation, but didn’t make it through the first full week of fall camp.

This is the second straight year Arkansas has seen a newcomer leave the team before the start of the season, as junior college defensive tackle Taylor Lewis entered the transfer portal last August.

It’s unclear what Brathwaite’s next step is because he was set to be a sixth-year senior in his final year of eligibility, which was granted only because of the blanked pandemic-related relief from the NCAA.

Brathwaite, who also transferred high schools during his prep career, was originally committed to Florida International until the Razorbacks successfully flipped him in May. He was part of a triple-commitment weekend, as he announced his decision a day after Louisville transfer tight end Sherman Francis and a couple hours after Louisiana Tech transfer defensive tackle Keivie Rose.

Evolving from a special teams stalwart to an honorable mention All-CUSA selection for the Hilltoppers, Brathwaite started 12 games in 2021 before injuries limited him to only 141 snaps last season.

What it Means for Arkansas Football

Just before the start of fall camp, Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman mentioned that AJ Brathwaite Jr. would be one of a handful of defensive backs focusing on the nickel, or “Hog,” position.

The others Pittman listed were redshirt freshman Jaylen Lewis, true freshman Dallas Young and walk-ons Courtney Snelling and Jabrae Shaw, making Brathwaite easily the most experienced of the group.

However, Baylor transfers Alfahiym Walcott and Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson were also mentioned as guys who would get work at multiple positions, including nickel. Their primary spots are safety and cornerback, respectively.

It was already looking like one of them would end up starting there, but Brathwaite could have conceivably pushed for that job and allowed both of them to stick at the positions they played with the Bears.

On Thursday, though, Johnson ran with the first-team defense at nickel with two other newcomers getting a crack with the starters at cornerback — former five-star recruit and Georgia transfer Jaheim Singletary and four-star freshman Jaylon Braxton.

If Singletary in particular can live up to his potential and lock down the starting job opposite of Dwight McGlothern at corner, it’s a near certainty that Johnson would remain in the starting lineup as the nickel.

At the very least, Brathwaite was set to be a key backup.

Defensive backs coach Deron Wilson talked about his veteran leadership and game experience as his best qualities that he brings to the room. Now, in the event of injuries, Arkansas will have to play someone either very inexperienced or completely shuffle the secondary — and last year showed what can happen if injuries ravage the unit.

Brathwaite’s Departure Opens Up Scholarship

One other side effect of AJ Brathwaite Jr. leaving the team is that it opens up one of Arkansas’ 85 scholarships.

The Razorbacks had been full entering fall camp, which means they didn’t have any room to reward walk-ons with scholarships, but now Sam Pittman has one to play around with.

The most likely candidate to receive the scholarship would seemingly be offensive lineman Josh Street, as he has cracked the two deep as the backup left guard. He would also be an emergency center, making him even more valuable for the Razorbacks.

Now in his third season with Arkansas football, Street went to Bentonville High School and redshirted in 2021 before appearing in all 13 games last year, mostly on special teams.

Another couple of candidates could be wide receivers Chris Harris and Chris Rhodes. Harris is a redshirt junior from Dumas who has been running as the third-team slot receiver, while Rhodes was a preferred walk-on from the JUCO ranks who originally committed as a defensive back, but has since moved to offense.

If the Razorbacks want to keep that scholarship on the defensive side of the ball, the best option is likely defensive back Courtney Snelling, as he actually plays that nickel position and has made a handful of plays in practice dating back to spring ball.

UPDATE (Aug. 11): Best of Arkansas Sports has learned that Arkansas football has awarded Brathwaite’s scholarship to Josh Street. He is now one of three traditional walk-ons on scholarship for the Razorbacks, joining sixth-year super senior tight end Nathan Bax and fifth-year senior safety Hudson Clark. Click here for our analysis of the move, plus an updated injury report from Day 7 of Arkansas fall camp.

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