State of the Hogs: Praise high for Texas safety

By: Clay Henry
Published: Thursday, February 7, 2019
Jalen Catalon
Jalen Catalon

Arkansas coach Chad Morris just sailed along as he described the signing class Wednesday. There was a tidbit on each of the four with scholarships, then a little on each of the five preferred walk-ons announced.

The standout Morris quote from all was about Mansfield, Texas, star Jalen Catalon. Morris, with an extensive background in high school football, blew me away when he said Catalon ranked as one of his all-time bests.

There's no telling how many great ones Morris has seen during his time coaching in Texas or following the recruiting game at Tulsa, Clemson, SMU and now at Arkansas.

“One of the top high school football players I think I’ve ever seen - top five for sure,” Morris said. “Fantastic player, played safety and can play a lot of different positions. I’ve been watching high school football for a very long time and recruiting for a very long time and this young man is one of the best that I’ve seen. Can play a lot of positions.”

Then, the question-and-answer period began. I generally sit back and let those go first who are chomping at the bit to ask their detailed, planned queries. They are often good.

I never come into these sessions with a real strategy. I just listen to the coach, then decide what has the most interest. Perhaps someone else will latch onto the same thought and I don't have to ever ask for the roving microphone. That's fine, but I'm ready at the end to expand on a good angle.

After a few questions had been asked – even two on Catalon – it was clear no one was that excited about what Morris said about where he fit in his all-time rankings of high school players. I asked for the microphone and a deeper dive into his all-time top five.

Morris didn't hesitate, but didn't come up with all in his top five. He said he'd think a little more and add to it later. And, he did, but in the meantime I plotted another direction for my column, a call to Mansfield Legacy coach Chris Melson. I'd covered him as a high schooler at Ada, Okla., in 1986 and then during a college career at the University of Oklahoma, finishing in 1991.

Back to Morris' list, there was eventually some detail.

“I've watched Deshaun Watson play, seen Vince Young play,” Morris said. “There's been some great ones that we've seen and I'd have to go back and think of some more, but he's up there.

“He's very instinctive, especially when you see what he's having to do in all phases - offense, defensively. He plays quarterback and also comes in and doubles as a safety. Phenomenal baseball player. He's a well-rounded athlete. He was a great basketball player, so when you look at that and look at the impact he's had on his team ... I think the one word I would say more than anything is extremely instinctive and he loves to play the game.”

After Morris answered several more questions to end the session, I visited with him on the way out of the room. Who else could he remember to fill out his top five?

“Oh, I'd have to put Darren McFadden in there,” Morris said. “I saw him play in high school. Now, he was a more powerful athlete than Jalen, a running back. But what I'm talking about with these players like DeShaun, Vince and Darren, and to add Jalen with them, it's just natural instinct to play the game. They all have that.”

Interestingly, all played at least some quarterback. McFadden was a quarterback early in his career at Pulaski Oak Grove. Catalon dominates on both sides of the ball, including quarterback. He's also an outstanding center fielder in baseball and dazzles in basketball, too.

Catalon isn't as long as some of those players. He's listed at 5-10, 188 pounds, but he's a man at that size. He's a fierce tackler from the defensive secondary. He causes fumbles and ends up with the football. Obviously, he made plays at quarterback, too.

Morris couldn't talk about Catalon to the media until signing day, but he's been telling coaches – his staff and friends in the Texas high school ranks – about the Mansfield do-it-all star for a long time. Morris said he was quick to extend an offer to Catalon as soon as he began to play at Mansfield three years ago.

“I mentioned earlier, and I’ve seen a lot of high school ball,” he said. “And I’ve said this over and over about him and watching him as a player, and we were first to offer him at our time at SMU.

“Just knowing him and the program he plays in and the level of competition he has to play at. He would play safety, play quarterback, played both ways. He’s one of the top-five best high school players that I’ve seen play.

“So I think his potential and his upside is phenomenal. It’s unfortunate he suffered an injury this year in the first game because I think the outcome for their season would have been different, because I think he’s that big of an impact player. And not only just that I think that, but when you travel around and knowing the coaches that I know in that state and to listen to them talk about him as a person and a player - phenomenal. But when you meet his parents, you understand that.”

Catalon underwent knee surgery in September and is well into rehab. He is into the running part of the comeback and will begin making lateral cuts soon.

Morris said Catalon and Treylon Burks, an Arkansas receiver signee from Warren who also is coming back from knee surgery, are doing well in their rehab process.

“They’re both well ahead of schedule,” Morris said. “We anticipate those guys being back and ready to go when they get here in June, full throttle and ready. They’ll come up and go through evaluations in front of our team doctors, but our doctors will be in touch with theirs and making sure that everybody’s on the right page. So, we anticipate those guys being ready to go for sure for fall camp and summer workouts.”

Those are two great players, both four-star recruits. They've been legends at their schools from the day they stepped on the field as sophomores.

Melson, Catalon's high school coach, knew what he had from the start. Ninth graders are on campus at Mansfield Legacy. Catalon quarterbacked the freshman team to the school's first 10-0 record. It was soon after that when college coaches began to offer scholarships.

“I think it was the spring of his sophomore year,” Melson said. “There were several who offered that first day you could. I remembered it as Missouri was first, but Coach Morris was that first day, too. I think Oklahoma and TCU were also on that first day.”

All but Virginia offered Catalon as a safety or cornerback.

“Bronco Mendenhall (at Virginia) was the one who thought he was a quarterback,” Melson said. “I think you have to play him at safety.”

Why not cornerback?

“I think you want him at safety because he can go everywhere,” Melson said. “Put him in the middle of the field and let him go to work.”

Melson said it's the “competitive” nature that makes Catalon special.

“He has the talent, instinct and sense to know what is happening,” he said. “Then, he's just so competitive. He wants to get to the ball so badly. We have a lot of good players with speed, but you see him passing two or three players to get to the ball.

“He just has the natural instinct to make reads and he trusts his reads. And, he just wants to win.”

Told about Morris rating Catalon in his top five, Melson said his personal list is shorter.

“I haven't heard him say that, but I believe he said it,” Melson said, then added, “I've been telling everyone for the last three years that I've been coaching high school for 27 years and he's the best, and we've played against some really great players.

“From the first day he showed up here, he sparked everyone to better play and that's in anything he does. I'm telling you, this kid is different.”

There have been some greats at safety for the Razorbacks, but none lately. I'm talking about the likes of Harry Jones, Greg Lasker, Steve Atwater, Kenoy Kennedy and Ken Hamlin. That's my list of greatest UA safeties, in order of when they played.

Interestingly, there was a text to me Thursday night from Kennedy, who hails from Terrell, Texas, not far from Mansfield. He's seen Catalon play and called to congratulate him upon signing Wednesday. Kennedy, a humble guy, said to tell UA fans, "Jalen is a faster me."

That's enough for me. Kennedy is high on my list of greatest Arkansas safeties, maybe at the top. All of those guys played in the NFL, as did all on the Morris list of greatest high school players ever seen.

It's a good sign for the Arkansas defense. It's time for something different.

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