Arkansas safety Jalen Catalon is one of the best active defensive players in college football, but his success did not come overnight.
Years of hard work and dedication shaped the Razorback star and second-team preseason All-American, who was a bright spot in a disappointing 2020 season and carried the Hogs' defense to a decisive victory over Rice in the season opener Saturday.
“I would just say (football) was kind of in my blood,” Catalon said. “It interested me at a young age. Ever since I was 4 or 5 I fell in love with it and it has just been a part of my life ever since then.”
The redshirt sophomore created a name for himself at Mansfield Legacy High School in Mansfield, Texas. He earned four-star rankings from Rivals and ESPN and received offers from top football programs across the country, including Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma and Ohio State.
“I just played the game,” Catalon said. “Football is just something I love to do and once I guess colleges started texting me and wanting me to visit and giving me offers is when I realized I could play at the next level. But before that I was just playing football because it’s what I love to do.”
Once the calls started, they never really ended for Catalon. He had a busy recruiting schedule as a highly sought-after prospect.
“It was really crazy,” Catalon said. “One day you had about 10 coaches calling you a day, calling your parents, trying to get to know your parents, and just knowing everything about your social life, letting you know they really want you.”
Catalon eventually chose Arkansas over all the other schools that courted him.
“I just wanted to come here because (of) the tradition of Arkansas and I just wanted to be a part of this program,” Catalon said. “It has so much history and the fans here are incredible, so it was hard for me to say no to it and they welcomed me with open arms.”
Mansfield Legacy head coach Chris Melson, who has watched Catalon on his journey to success said his talent never inflated his ego. Catalon was a coach-friendly player, a great teammate and a strong leader, Melson said.
“When Jalen was out there, in the locker room, you just believed you were going to win,” Melson said. “He treated his teammates very well. He’s just such a great example of work and character. He was everything. He brought confidence and a belief to everybody in that locker room.”
Catalon's strong work ethic on and off the field also began in high school, Melson said.
“He watched a lot of tape,” Melson said. “I’d say probably a couple hours a week as a high school kid, studying the quarterback…and once he figured out what the guy was going to do he was on it.”
Catalon’s redshirt season in 2019 was rough for the Razorbacks. The team finished the season 2-10 for the second straight year. Although it would have been easy to pack up, leave and take his pick of other schools, Catalon decided to stick it out and use the season as a learning opportunity, he said.
“I would just say I became a student of the game,” Catalon said. “I just gained so much knowledge and just kept learning and it just kind of translates to the field. I think God blessed everybody with some type of athletic ability, but you can never study too much film, so I just stayed in the film room, learned some different things and schemes.”
The Razorbacks improved in 2020 to a 3-7 record in an all-conference game schedule, and Catalon had a fantastic season, prompting the Associated Press to name him a preseason All-American. He had 99 total tackles, 51 solo, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, three interceptions and a touchdown.
So far, Catalon’s hard work has paid off. He has earned 2020 AP All-SEC first team honors, FWAA Freshman All-American recognition, 2020 Phil Steele All-American third team honors and was a semifinalist for the Jim Thorpe Award, among other recognitions.
Catalon said there has been a palpable increase in optimism and confidence surrounding the Razorbacks since the arrival of Pittman.
“I think the attitude of the team overall is much different,” Catalon said. “There’s more confidence and there’s more people just flying around and just loving the game again. I think everybody just started reaching ‘that’s why I love the game’ as a team and as a unit and I think that’s helped us grow this season.”