The 2019 loss to Western Kentucky will always be remembered by Arkansas football fans for being the final nail in Chad Morris’ coffin, but it also gave AJ Brathwaite Jr. a glimpse of his future home.
Three and a half years later, the Hilltoppers’ defensive back committed to the Razorbacks out of the transfer portal. He announced his decision during his official visit, flipping from his commitment to Florida International just five days earlier.
Having already spent five years at Western Kentucky, Brathwaite will be a super senior with only one year of eligibility at Arkansas.
He was part of a double commitment day for Arkansas football, as his announcement came just a couple of hours after defensive tackle Keivie Rose from Louisiana Tech — and a triple commitment weekend, as tight end Sherman Francis from Louisville pledged a day earlier.
The Razorbacks are now up to 17 total scholarship transfers this cycle, with 10 midyear enrollees who went through spring ball. The other seven, which includes Brathwaite, will arrive this summer.
AJ Brathwaite Jr. with Western Kentucky Football
This isn’t the first time AJ Brathwaite has transferred to a more prestigious school for his final year at a particular level, as he also did it in high school.
He started out at Flanagan High in Pembroke Pines, Fla., before finishing his high school career at Miami Central, which regularly produces highly touted college football prospects.
That doesn’t exactly describe Brathwaite, though, as a majority of his offers were from Group of Five programs and he was a two-star recruit on Rivals. Still, Mississippi State did extend an offer and 247Sports was higher on him, giving him an 86 rating that made him a mid-tier three-star recruit in the 2018 class.
Western Kentucky beat out those programs, landing his commitment during the summer leading up his senior year and before he ever even visited the campus. He stuck with that pledge despite some other schools, like Colorado State, making a strong push.
It took a while for Brathwaite to really make an impact for the Hilltoppers. He redshirted his first year while appearing in four games, with all of his action coming on special teams.
Over the next two years, Brathwaite became a mainstay on special teams, contributing heavily on virtually every unit, while serving as a reserve on defense. He played just 65 total defensive snaps, compared to 363 special teams snaps from 2019-20.
Six of those defensive snaps, and 15 of those special teams snaps, came in Western Kentucky’s shocking 45-19 blowout win over the Razorbacks in Fayetteville, in which former Arkansas quarterback Ty Storey accounted for 290 yards and three touchdowns. Brathwaite, meanwhile, had one assisted tackle against his future team, helping take down TJ Hammonds in the final minute of the game.
It was the 2021 season that Brathwaite finally broke through and became a starter on defense. He ended up starting 12 games for a Western Kentucky team that lost to UTSA in the C-USA Championship Game before beating Appalachian State in the Boca Raton Bowl.
While playing 638 defensive snaps, Brathwaite earned a 59.9 grade from Pro Football Focus and finished with 64 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 2 pass breakups and 1 interception. That earned him honorable mention All-CUSA accolades.
Unfortunately, injuries prevented him from building on that performance as a fifth-year senior in 2022. He came down with an interception on the first defensive possession of the season, but ended up appearing in just eight games — only two of which he started — and playing 141 snaps.
He was officially credited with 16 tackles, including one for loss, to go along with the interception and his PFF grade dipped to 51.5, so perhaps he wasn’t 100% healthy when he did play.
Brathwaite entered the transfer portal following the regular season and was set to return to his hometown of Miami by committing to Florida International, but that pledge lasted just five days before he flipped to Arkansas.
What it Means for Arkansas Football
Stealing a recruit – high school or transfer – from Florida International isn’t the most exciting thing, but flipping AJ Brathwaite Jr. was still significant for Arkansas football.
The Razorbacks entered the spring transfer portal window in desperate need of some more depth in the secondary and they got it in the form of someone who has starting experience at the FBS level and has even flashed all-conference potential.
While the initial wave of transfers yielded the Baylor duo of Lorando “Snaxx” Johnson and Alfahiym Walcott, there weren’t a ton of great defensive backs available in the portal this time around and Arkansas has found itself scouring the FCS and JUCO ranks for help.
It landed one from the latter group, as Chris Rhodes out of Butler County C.C. announced his commitment to the Razorbacks on Tuesday, following his official visit to Fayetteville. However, Best of Arkansas Sports has since learned that he is a preferred walk-on commit, so he won’t use one of the three remaining scholarships for 2023. Arkansas has also offered several FCS defensive backs, with Delaware safety Amonte’ Strothers even expressing interest in visiting.
With Rhodes being a walk-on, there’s a good chance Arkansas still takes another defensive back with one of those last three spots, but it will most likely be a lower-level transfer, so at least it has Brathwaite already on board.
Depending on the health of Quincey McAdoo, who was involved in a serious car accident, the Razorbacks have pretty solid depth at cornerback between him, Johnson (who can also play nickel), Dwight McGlothern, LaDarrius Bishop and incoming transfer Jaheim Singletary, a former five-star recruit from Georgia.
There are questions at nickel and safety, though. Hudson Clark is a full-time safety now after making the switch midseason, as is Malik Chavis. Jayden Johnson is also back as an experienced safety, while redshirt freshman Jaylen Lewis could factor in at nickel. Walcott was an All-Big 12 safety at Baylor and could play there or nickel for the Razorbacks.
Beyond that, the Razorbacks’ options are a bunch of freshmen. Odds are they won’t have as many injuries in the secondary as last year, but if they did, having to throw in a young player before he’s ready is not ideal.
Even if he doesn’t crack the starting lineup, it is critical to add someone like Brathwaite for depth purposes.
More coverage of Arkansas football and the transfer portal from BoAS…