FAYETTEVILLE — The biggest loss to the transfer portal yet could be on the horizon for Arkansas football.
Safety Jalen Catalon, a preseason All-American entering this season, is “leaning towards” entering the transfer portal instead of declaring for the NFL Draft or returning to the Razorbacks, head coach Sam Pittman revealed Friday afternoon.
“He’ll have to tell you, but I think he just wants a fresh start,” Pittman said. “I talked to him about if he was going to leave here, if he wanted my advice, I would just declare for the NFL and give it that type of chance. But he had a different view on it. Whatever he wants to do, we’ll be fine with it. As of my conversation this morning with him, I think that’s probably where he’s leaning. I just don’t know if he’s gone in yet.”
(UPDATE: Catalon has officially entered the transfer portal.)
A redshirt junior this season, Catalon technically has two years of eligibility remaining because of the bonus year granted by the NCAA in response to the pandemic.
The Mansfield, Texas, native passed on the NFL Draft last offseason so he could play another year and improve his draft stock. Entering the 2022 season, some considered him a potential first-round pick, especially if he could stay healthy.
Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. When he underwent season-ending surgery after re-injuring his shoulder in the opener against Cincinnati, many Arkansas football fans believed they had seen the last of Catalon playing for the Razorbacks.
Surprising Transfer Portal Entries
That was, of course, because it was widely expected he’d declare for the NFL Draft rather than risk further injury in college. It’s quite a shock to hear that Jalen Catalon might play elsewhere when he was being mentioned in the same breath as Arkansas legends Steve Atwater and Ken Hamlin following a spectacular redshirt freshman campaign in 2020.
If Catalon does end up going in the transfer portal, he would be the Razorbacks’ 18th scholarship player to do so since fall camp. Most of those players have been somewhat expected because of their position on the depth chart or anticipated playing time moving forward.
No one was particularly surprised by the loss of backup quarterback Malik Hornsby, punter Reid Bauer or any of the numerous players who’ve yet to see the field at all during their careers.
However, Arkansas did have a pair of starters — wide receiver Warren Thompson and defensive back Myles Slusher — leave before the end of the regular season who have since entered the portal and have also had a couple other surprising departures.
Two that fall into that category are wide receiver Ketron Jackson Jr. and tight end Trey Knox, both of whom have played a lot of snaps for the Razorbacks and would have had big roles on the 2023 team if they chose to return. Sam Pittman admitted he was “a little bit” surprised by their decisions, but also acknowledged that a “lot of factors go into that.”
“Other schools, NIL, there’s a lot of factors,” Pittman said. “Not getting enough balls, all kinds of stuff goes into that. We’ll certainly support those guys any way we can.”
Pittman added that there are things going on that are “not on the up-and-up,” with promises being made to kids about playing time and money.
Because of how confusing that can be for players, he has further adjusted his policy against allowing players back after entering the portal. Pittman infamously compared that to his wife taking him back if he went in the portal at his first SEC Media Days appearance.
He already back-tracked on that stance when he allowed Hornsby and offensive lineman Jalen St. John to withdraw their names and return to the team last offseason. At the time, he said it was because they didn’t miss any team activities.
Now, however, Pittman has evolved his stance to combat the more shady side of college football.
“I just think right now, when someone’s trying to get one of your players and it’s not real, I don’t know if it’s fair to go into the portal thinking this and then it becomes not real. If they’ll make up what they missed and if it’s not leaving Arkansas because Arkansas is not good enough for them, then we’ll have that conversation.”
What it Means for Arkansas Football
The Razorbacks were probably already working under the assumption that they wouldn’t have Jalen Catalon in 2023. Even if he came back next year, he’d be coming off season-ending shoulder surgery in back-to-back years.
Filling his spot at safety is not easy because Catalon is such a good player, but Arkansas did so essentially the entire season this year and much of the last half of the 2021 season.
In 2022, Simeon Blair replaced him as a team captain and played more snaps than anyone on the defense. Despite his struggles, Blair could come back as a super senior and Sam Pittman indicated that he — and most of the undecided potential super seniors, minus Luke Jones — would do so.
Other safeties who are currently slated to be back include Hudson Clark and Malik Chavis, both of whom could also play cornerback, as well as Jayden Johnson and Anthony Brown. Trent Gordon is another potential super senior who could play multiple spots in the secondary.
The Razorbacks also have six defensive backs committed in the 2023 recruiting class, including four-star safety TJ Metcalf.
Where Jalen Catalon entering the transfer portal really impacts the Arkansas football program is public perception. As soon as Pittman’s comments hit Twitter, the reaction was swift and immediate:
Following a disappointing season in which it went 6-6, two fewer regular-season wins than the year before, Arkansas desperately needs some positive press and having a fan-favorite like Catalon enter the transfer portal is just the latest example of the exact opposite of that.
Perhaps a win over Kansas in the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 28 could leave a good taste in the mouths of Arkansas football fans going into the off-season, but it seems like Year 4 will be critical for Sam Pittman to get things back on track.
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