FAYETTEVILLE — For the second straight year, Jalen Catalon’s season will be cut short because he needs shoulder surgery, head coach Sam Pittman said Saturday.
The preseason All-American safety left last week’s win over Cincinnati with an undisclosed injury and, after a week filled with speculation, he was not with the Razorbacks during their 44-30 win over South Carolina.
Pittman reluctantly revealed that Catalon needed “reconstructive surgery” during his postgame press conference and said he wouldn’t return this season.
“I feel for him,” Pittman said. “We’ve had conversations and I’m going to let him be away from the building a little bit. I mean, he’s down. You would be, too, if you put in all that work for 2 years and you’re not able to play.”
The news was much more encouraging for nickel Myles Slusher, who also left the Cincinnati win with an undisclosed injury and missed Saturday’s game. He could return as soon as next week against Missouri State, but it sounds like he should definitely be back in time for the Razorbacks’ next SEC game, which is against No. 6 Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, on Sept. 24.
“Slush, I believe will be back,” Pittman said. “He was close to being back this week, but we just felt it was safer for him to come back next week. He’ll be back next week.”
What it Means for Arkansas Football
With the Razorbacks down a pair of starters in the secondary, their top two backup safeties moved into starting roles, as expected. Jayden Johnson slid down to nickel, where he actually started a few games as a true freshman last year, and Latavious Brini filled in where Catalon would usually start.
“When I first got here, they always just made sure they kept me accountable…so it was really no pressure,” Brini said. “This is like practice. Let’s go. Just making sure I’m accountable for everything I do.”
Sam Pittman doesn’t like to comment on how specific players performed until reviewing the film, but he was pleased with how the secondary did as a whole.
His final numbers looked pretty good, but 135 of Spencer Rattler’s 371 passing yards came on 9-of-10 passing in the back half of the fourth quarter when Arkansas was relatively in control of the game.
At the point of his interception to Dwight McGlothern in the end zone, when South Carolina was trying to get back within two possessions, the heralded quarterback was just 14 of 28 for 236 yards — with a big chunk of that coming on a 62-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
“You’d have to ask Barry Odom, but to me, we covered well at times and we covered poorly at times,” Pittman said. “We just have to become more consistent. I think we can do that. But with the first week of losing two of your top defenders and coming out with a win like that and fighting and scrapping, I thought it was good.”
Arkansas’ depth was tested quite a bit because, facing a more wide-open South Carolina offense, it opened up in a dime package with six defensive backs on the field and used it several times throughout the game. That meant junior Khari Johnson, who moved from cornerback to safety this week, earned his second career start.
“We didn’t want to make an excuse,” Pittman said. “I said to the team in the pregame speech it’s not about the players that ain’t out there, it’s about the ones that are. I’m sympathetic for both injuries — very, very (sympathetic) — but you go out there on a Saturday, you’re going to play.”
The secondary was further thinned when Brini left the game with injuries at a couple different points. When that happened, cornerback Malik Chavis filled in at safety — the position he played last year. However, he was the top backup corner. That forced LaDarrius Bishop to sub in when the Razorbacks took out McGlothern, but it’s unknown if that was just a regular substitution or due to an injury.
“We always would love to have Catalon because of how talented he is, but we have a lot of players,” safety Simeon Blair said. “Brini came in and stepped up, forced a fumble. He had a great game. We had Malik step in, Khari step in, and both of them have been playing corner for a long time. They came in and played safety for us today and they also did a wonderful job.”
The forced fumble by Brini came just two plays after the Razorbacks had scored on the first play of the fourth quarter to go back up by two possessions. Hudson Clark jumped on it and Arkansas turned it into points with a touchdown that essentially clinched the game.
It was Brini’s first start at Arkansas, but he did start 10 games on Georgia’s historic defense that helped the Bulldogs win a national championship last season.
“Brini started several games for Georgia last year — started — so it’s kind of hard for me to go ‘woe are we’ whenever we got a guy who started a lot of games for the national champions,” Pittman said. “He has to come in and play our system and play it well.”
Brini met with the media for the first time since transferring following the game and had ice on his ankle, but said he felt great. Pittman even said he likely could have returned if necessary.
“I just got tired of seeing him going in and out and I said put somebody else in there,” Pittman said with a smile. “By the way, that’s the truth.”
Another Injury for Jalen Catalon
Unfortunately, this is nothing new for Jalen Catalon. The talented safety’s career has been plagued by injuries, dating back to his high school career.
A four-star recruit and top-250 overall prospect coming out of Mansfield Legacy in the 2019 class, Catalon was heavily recruited and likely would have been ranked higher had he not suffered a torn ACL in the first game of his senior season.
Even with the injury, former coach Chad Morris mentioned Catalon alongside the likes of Vince Young as one of the best recruits he’d ever seen in Texas. Despite that high praise and having a solid fall camp in which he had multiple pick-six interceptions, the Razorbacks failed to get him significant reps as a freshman.
In his first three collegiate appearances, Catalon played only a handful of snaps, with most coming on kneel downs or special teams. Because the coaching staff had botched the new redshirt rule, he was shut down after getting significant reps against Western Kentucky and playing well. It was eventually revealed that he was hampered by a slight tear in his labrum that required surgery.
Sam Pittman ended up reaping the benefits, as Catalon had a breakout 2020 season in which he made 99 tackles and three interceptions, earning All-SEC and Freshman All-American accolades.
There was talk of Catalon being a first-round pick after his redshirt sophomore season, and it started off on a high note with two interceptions in the opener against Rice, but that was derailed by injuries.
A broken hand likely contributed to Catalon not coming down with an interception or two against Ole Miss and then it was revealed he once again had a “tear” in his shoulder that required season-ending surgery.
Even after missing the second half of the regular season and the bowl game, there was a chance Catalon could declare for the draft and begin his NFL career, but instead, he opted to return for a fourth season with the Razorbacks. Unfortunately, it ended the same as his first and third — with shoulder surgery.
Check out what Sam Pittman said after Arkansas football’s 44-30 win over South Carolina:
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