A little over a year ago, Jalen Catalon was well on his way to becoming an Arkansas football legend.
Fresh off a breakout redshirt freshman season, the hard-hitting safety was a preseason All-American and garnering first-round conversation for the next NFL Draft while being mentioned in the same breath as guys like Steve Atwater and Ken Hamlin.
Adding to the hype, Catalon came down with a pair of interceptions in the Razorbacks’ season-opening win over Rice — the second of which he returned it inside the 10 early in the fourth quarter, setting up the go-ahead touchdown.
He was on top of the world and Texas, the school he spurned coming out of high school, was coming to town the following week. He told reporters that the Longhorns “were involved” in his recruitment, but was adamant about being happy in Fayetteville.
“I chose this place because it felt like home to me and the atmosphere, so I have no regrets whatsoever,” Catalon said after the Rice game. “Today just shows that. The love the fans show and the environment you get to play in, you can’t ask for anything better.
“I’m proud to be a Hog,” he stated. “I’ll always be proud to be a Hog, no matter what.”
A lot has happened in the past 16 months, though. A pair of season-ending injuries, plus the departure of his position coach and defensive coordinator, led to Catalon seeking a fresh start.
Rather than declaring for the NFL Draft, which was the move head coach Sam Pittman recommended after the season, the safety chose to enter the transfer portal. As if that wasn’t hard enough on Arkansas football fans, they have had to reckon with the recent news that Catalon will continue his career at…Texas.
Transfer or Traitor?
Considering he missed half of 2021 and almost all of 2022 with shoulder injuries that required season-ending surgery, plus his NFL Draft aspirations, Arkansas likely wasn’t planning on having Jalen Catalon next season anyway.
However, losing a player of his caliber to the transfer portal was a psychological blow to the fanbase. Still, many fans wished him well and accepted the fact he’d be a “what if” story most looked back at fondly while rooting for his success at his next stop.
That shifted significantly with his commitment on Monday to Texas football — Arkansas’ most historic rival. When solicited for their thoughts on the announcement, Arkansas fans obliged with more than 200 wide-ranging responses via Twitter.
A few of the comments are below and more can be read under our original tweet here, but be warned: some of the responses contain foul language.
This kind of reaction is 100% understandable. For a fan-favorite who once said he’d “always be proud to be a Hog, no matter what” to not only leave, but leave for the school a lot of fans hate more than any other…well, quite frankly, it sucks.
It’s easy to claim that Arkansas and Texas are no longer rivals and players coming through the game today don’t even know the significance of the former SWC rivalry. That’s not the case for Catalon, though. He got a taste of just how much it meant to the Razorback fanbase when he and his teammates knocked off the Longhorns last year and the crowd emptied onto the field in celebration.
While he has every right to transfer to Texas and perhaps fulfill a childhood dream as a native of the Lone Star State, Catalon also fully understands the consequences that come with such a decision. It also hurts because he was a team captain for the Razorbacks.
“When a player is voted captain by his teammates and the coaches are all in on them being a captain, because they’re a great representative of their team and the best of their team, the best their team has to offer, really instills and embodies the type of culture, the type of mentality that the team needs to have, and then that particular individual leaves and goes to another school — in this case, rivals of your school — that hurts and that rubs people the wrong way,” Arkansas radio personality John Nabors said in a recent podcast. “I don’t blame them for it rubbing them the wrong way.”
Life with the Transfer Portal
Unfortunately, this seems to be the current state of college football. Just last year, Arkansas saw a pair of defensive backs leave and join a rival — and one in the SEC West — as Greg Brooks Jr. and Joe Foucha transferred to LSU. Like Catalon, Foucha had also been an Arkansas football captain.
It’s not unique to the Razorbacks, either. Another eye-catching move last offseason involved wide receiver Jermaine Burton, who won a national championship at Georgia by beating Alabama and then joined the Crimson Tide.
Whether you like it or not, the transfer portal — albeit likely with some tweaks and modifications along the way — is here to stay. And just as the portal taketh, it also giveth.
As disappointing as the Razorbacks’ 7-6 season was, just imagine what they would have been like without Drew Sanders, Jadon Haselwood, Matt Landers, etc. Alabama fans probably weren’t thrilled about seeing Sanders earn All-American honors at another SEC West school, but they have also reaped the benefits of the portal.
Sure, seeing players like Jalen Catalon transfer to Texas may leave a bad taste in your mouth and you may think the portal and NIL is “ruining” college football, but that’s life and only those who adapt will survive the current landscape.
Thankfully for Arkansas football fans, Sam Pittman appears willing to adjust his philosophy and — at least in 2022 — showed he can hit it out of the park in the portal.
Potential for Revenge vs Jalen Catalon
Unlike when they lost Greg Brooks Jr. and Joe Foucha to LSU, the Razorbacks aren’t guaranteed to get an opportunity to face Jalen Catalon at his new school. Texas, for the time being, is still in the Big 12 and won’t join the SEC until 2024, at the earliest.
There’s the possibility of meeting in a bowl game next season, but Arkansas probably won’t renew its rivalry with the Longhorns until they become conference foes for the first time since 1991.
Catalon will be a fifth-year senior this coming season and is likely hopeful he can stay healthy for a full season to show he’s worth taking in the NFL Draft. He certainly has the talent to play at the next level, but his injury history is worrisome.
If that doesn’t work out, he could technically return to school as a super senior in 2024 because he played during the pandemic-altered 2020 season, plus he could probably get a medical redshirt for last season and pick up another year of eligibility.
In that scenario, Catalon could — depending on how the schedule format plays out — find his way back to Fayetteville. It would be in burnt orange, though, and he’d find the crowd much less welcoming than the last time he took the field at Reynolds Razorback Stadium.
Another perspective on Jalen Catalon and his decision to join the Texas football program:
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