FAYETTEVILLE — Their status is still up in the air, but there’s a chance Arkansas football will be without a pair of starting defensive backs Saturday against South Carolina.
Nickel back Myles Slusher and preseason All-American safety Jalen Catalon each left the Razorbacks’ win over Cincinnati with undisclosed injuries and are now questionable — at best — for their SEC opener.
As has been his policy since taking over as Arkansas’ head coach, Sam Pittman hasn’t revealed much information about Catalon or Slusher. He declined to give a potential timeline for their return and opted to keep the nature of the injuries secret when he met with reporters Monday.
“Well, we’re not ready, really, to figure out exactly Catalon’s situation,” Pittman said. “We haven’t, let’s say that, I guess. Slusher’s in the same boat there.”
A couple of days later, Pittman once again chose to remain secretive.
“I don’t know,” Pittman said when asked if they’d be out long-term. “We’ll see what happens. I really don’t know right now, but we recruited well. Regardless of what it might be or might not be, we’ll be fine back there.”
Catalon eventually emerged from the locker room and was spotted by fans standing on the sideline with ice on his shoulder. That is notable considering his 2021 season was cut short with a shoulder injury that required surgery.
Nothing has come out about Slusher’s injury, but he is believed to have never returned to the sideline after being helped off the field. He got hurt when he tackled a Cincinnati player behind the line of scrimmage late in the first half and actually laid on the grass for several minutes before heading to the locker room.
Based on Pittman’s history of comments about injuries, it’s probably safe to assume neither player will be available for the South Carolina game at a minimum, especially considering neither player was spotted at practice during the media viewing periods Monday and Tuesday.
That would be a significant blow to a secondary which Pittman said needs to “play better” than it did in the opener, but Saturday’s matchup with the Gamecocks is still slated to kick off at 11 a.m. CT on ESPN, so the Razorbacks have shifted their focus to filling those holes.
“We don’t know what’s going to go on with Cat, we don’t know what’s going to go on with Slush,” Pittman said. “But I told the staff, we’ve got to be concerned about the ones that are going to be there for sure.”
How Arkansas Football Will Adjust
The injury to Myles Slusher happened first and led to sophomore Jayden Johnson playing in his spot for most of the rest of the game. There was a brief period when Johnson was also shaken up and had to come out, but Trent Gordon — who is actually listed as the backup nickel on the depth chart — played just a couple of snaps before Johnson was able to return.
When Jalen Catalon went down, Georgia transfer Latavious Brini filled in at safety. He and Simeon Blair played the rest of the game at the two safety spots.
“We’re definitely seeing more confidence, more communication out of him,” cornerback Hudson Clark said about Brini since filling in for Catalon. “He’s holding me and all the other DBs accountable. I really like that out of him.”
Of course, having an experienced guy like Blair — a fifth-year senior — also helps from a communication standpoint with Catalon out.
“He’s played a lot of games,” Pittman said. “To be honest with you, he was kind of the vocal guy of the safeties. Cat certainly was vocal as well. But he’s embraced that role. We need him to be that guy.”
Johnson and Brini were the Razorbacks’ top two backup options for three of the five defensive back positions — the two safeties and nickel — in their nickel package. With them now likely in the starting lineup, Arkansas is dangerously thin on the back end of its secondary.
The Razorbacks still have Gordon as a potential backup at nickel, but the former four-star recruit has played just 10 total defensive snaps in Fayetteville since transferring from Penn State before the 2021 season. At safety, the backup options — based on fall camp — appear to be true freshman Anthony Brown, who has yet to appear in a college game, and redshirt junior Zach Zimos, a converted linebacker who’s played six career defensive snaps.
However, that likely won’t be how Arkansas goes into the matchup with South Carolina. Instead, Pittman told reporters Monday that there are defensive backs capable of switching positions and specifically mentioned Khari Johnson.
A former two-star recruit now in his third year in the program, Johnson actually started a game at cornerback as a true freshman in 2020 and has 192 career defensive snaps under his belt. He was moved to safety during the spring, but went back to cornerback in fall camp.
Pittman described him as a smart football player and said he’d likely need to become a Swiss Army knife in the secondary, much like Slusher.
“He’s going to have to be able to play both of those,” Pittman said. “We moved him to corner for a reason. We moved him to safety for a reason. But, you know, at times last week he was in the two deep at corner.”
On top of that, Gordon — who played safety at Penn State — was spotted getting second-team reps at safety at Tuesday’s practice, with redshirt sophomore Jacorrei Turner (32 career defensive snaps) working at nickel.
Having played quite a few snaps at nickel as a backup to Greg Brooks Jr. in 2020, LaDarrius Bishop would be a logical option to move from corner, as well, but when asked about a potential move for Bishop, Pittman said “probably not right now.”
Losing two of their most experienced and talented defensive backs is certainly hit to the Razorbacks’ defensive, but Pittman sounds confident that they have enough depth to weather the losses.
“I’m not real concerned about it,” Pittman said. “The game of football, you may lose someone for a week. You may lose someone for a season. It is what it is. You hate it, but it’s a physical sport, and that’s why they pay us a lot of money, so we can get guys ready to play and recruit players for depth.”
One of the biggest questions entering the opener against Cincinnati was also in the secondary, as Sam Pittman had mentioned three options to start at cornerback opposite of Hudson Clark.
LSU transfer Dwight McGlothern ended up getting the nod and — like his fellow transfers — made an immediate impact with an interception that set up the Razorbacks’ first touchdown of the season.
It was a nice debut, but Pittman said McGlothern still has to get better — which he believes he will.
“Obviously the pick was a huge play in the game,” Pittman said. “He’s got to be more consistent. That was basically — and some injuries — why he was running three at times in camp. But he is a gamer. That’s kind of who he is. We’ve figured that out.”
Malik Chavis was the first guy off the bench to rotate in at corner and played 11 snaps, while LaDarrius Bishop played seven snaps.
Things didn’t go particularly well for Bishop, who allowed a 30-yard reception and 35-yard touchdown in the span of three plays and earned a team-low 29.3 grade from Pro Football Focus.
Not surprisingly, Pittman indicated that Chavis had separated himself — along with the starters, Clark and McGlothern — at cornerback.
“There are still guys that need to get on the field somehow, but they’ve got to practice better to do that,” Pittman said. “But I think those three are, right now, probably ahead of the rest of them at this point, but we’ll see how practice goes.”
The Arkansas vs South Carolina Matchup
As if the injuries themselves weren’t bad enough, they came at a pretty inopportune time for Arkansas football. South Carolina is led by Oklahoma transfer Spencer Rattler, who was once a Heisman Trophy frontrunner and considered a potential No. 1 overall NFL Draft prospect.
With a talented quarterback like that at their disposal, the Gamecocks have switched up their offensive scheme and will attack opposing defenses through the air.
In last week’s opener against Georgia State, Rattler either passed the ball, was sacked or scrambled on 41 of South Carolina’s 69 plays. The Gamecocks actually went five wide more than any other formation, Pittman said, showing their desire to be more of a passing threat this year than last year, when their play calling was closer to a 50/50 split.
“What’s amazing is their No. 1 set was empty Saturday,” Pittman said. “Of course if you had Spencer Rattler, you’d probably want to do that. Where he’s most dangerous is when he gets out of the pocket. He can throw on the run as accurate as anybody. … I think anytime you go empty, you feel good about your tight ends and your wideouts and of course your quarterback.”
Although they showed to be much more multiple than the last two years in Week 1 and could still use several different formations in the game, the Razorbacks have lined up in a 3-2-6 dime package during both team periods seen by the media in viewing periods at practice this week, seemingly in preparation of that passing attack.
Having players like Catalon and Slusher in the defensive backfield would undoubtedly help Arkansas, especially if it plans to use six defensive backs at a time. In that scenario, Khari Johnson would become a starter and the Razorbacks would be even more thin in their depth.
However, this isn’t uncharted territory for Sam Pittman and defensive coordinator Barry Odom. In fact, in the second game of their tenure, Arkansas went on the road to face Mississippi State and Mike Leach’s air raid offense that was fresh off an upset win over defending national champion LSU in Death Valley behind an SEC-record 623 passing yards by K.J. Costello.
The Razorbacks were without two-year starting cornerback Jarques McClellion, who opted out the week leading up to the game after losing his starting job, and starter Montaric Brown went down with an injury, but still used that dime package.
Despite playing most of the game with former two-star recruit and Arkansas State transfer Jerry Jacobs and walk-on Hudson Clark at cornerback, Arkansas held the Bulldogs to 313 passing yards and snapped its long SEC losing streak with a 21-14 win.
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