State of the Hogs: Catalon, Odom have ties to high school days

By: Clay Henry
Published: Friday, June 5, 2020
Arkansas defensive back Jalen Catalon runs Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, during practice at the university practice field in Fayetteville.
Photo by Andy Shupe
Arkansas defensive back Jalen Catalon runs Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, during practice at the university practice field in Fayetteville.

The light bulb went off midway through the interview with Arkansas defensive coordinator Barry Odom.

That often happens when I discover a network among football coaches.

There was the realization Odom has a tie that bonds with one of his new players, redshirt freshman safety Jalen Catalon. It came after I asked an innocent question, oblivious to Odom’s roots as a star running back at Ada, Okla., where Odom scored 39 touchdowns as a senior while leading his team to the 1994 state title.

It was just 16 months ago that I stumbled into another former Ada star, the head coach at Mansfield, Texas, Legacy. That would be Chris Melson, whom I covered in one of the coldest state title games in Oklahoma high school history.

Melson quarterbacked the Ada Cougars to a comeback victory, scoring two touchdowns in the second half of a 34-17 victory over Guymon in 1986. The high was 13 that day on the campus of Oklahoma State where the game was played.

I covered that ice bowl of a game for the Tulsa World. It was a point of discussion when I phoned Melson for background information on Catalon, his dynamic quarterback at Legacy, for the 2019 Hawgs Illustrated recruiting issue.

I informed Melson that I knew him as an Ada star and later covered him in college at Oklahoma.

One quote stood out from that interview. Melson said Arkansas was among the first to offer a scholarship in the spring of Catalon’s ninth grade year.

Who was first? Missouri, coached by Odom at the time.

Somehow that Missouri had offered first had been forgotten. That was until Odom answered my question: As Missouri head coach did Odom have an early interest in Catalon as a Mansfield Legacy star?

“Why don’t you ask Jalen who was first the next time you see him?” Odom said.

I don’t need to now. Obviously, I’ve looked it up.

Melson and Odom both played for head coach Larry McBroom at Ada. Melson was a young coach on McBroom’s staff when Odom transferred to Ada from Maysville for his senior year.

“It is a pretty cool background,” Odom said. “I’ve known Jalen’s coach for a long time. He was there when I got there and was my (position) coach.”

Catalon played four games for the Hogs last year as a true freshman, preserving his redshirt. He probably wasn’t full speed, recovering from knee surgery that ended his senior season at Legacy after only one game.

Considered the plum of Morris’ second class at Arkansas, it may be that he’s close to blossoming as new Arkansas coach Sam Pittman and Odom rebuild. The defense has been one of the nation’s worst for most of the last decade. Problems at safety might have been the primary issue.

Odom doesn’t know yet who is going to line up where after the team exited campus just days before spring drills were set to begin. The covid-19 pandemic has turned coaching into Zoom virtual sessions ever since. Getting a depth chart might be as tough as a virus vaccine.

However, it would seem Catalon fits in Odom’s plans, although coaches can only sort through strength and agility workouts and some Zoom meetings.

Odom did commit to a discussion on the impression Catalon has made in that time. It’s even more relevant since Odom will coach the safeties.

“I have not seen Jalen practice yet, but I have seen him in some of our offseason workouts,” Odom said. “I do know what he’s done in the weight room and in our running. I’ll comment on that.

“He looks really good, really quick. He can run really well.”

And, there are good impressions from the virtual coaching.

“In the meetings, he’s shown really good football IQ,” Odom said. “Football is important to him. We’ve done the virtual installations and from doing things over and over (and testing), he’s done things really well.

“I’m excited about his future.”

It’s no surprise. Catalon was coveted by all of the nation’s elite, including Alabama, Texas and Oklahoma. He was a two-way player at quarterback and safety for three years. Most offered him as a defensive back, but Virginia coach Bronco Mendenhall wanted him as a quarterback.

When I phoned Melson in February 2019, the praise was rich with predictions, if Catalon’s knee would be healthy.

“If he knee is good, and I think it is,” Melson said, “Jalen has a chance to be an All-American and a Thorpe Award winner, and if he stays healthy, that’s what I think he will do at Arkansas.”

The Thorpe Award goes to the nation’s top defensive back. Oh, how the Hogs ache for another Ken Hamlin, Greg Lasker, Kenoy Kennedy or Steve Atwater.

“I still have to see how Jalen learns on the field,” Odom said. “I’ve seen how he does everything off the field. It’s been exciting. He’s done a tremendous job in the classroom.”

The leadership qualities are off the charts.

“Jalen possesses that,” Odom said. “You saw it in our conditioning drills and our lifting. A lot of it is by example. He comes from a great family. His brother (Kendall) is here, too, with our wide receivers.”

Melson said he brings the quarterback mentality to the defensive side of the field.

“He’s a play-making son of a gun,” Melson said. “He’ll play like great safeties play.”

Melson said some college coaches thought Catalon would be a 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.”

What makes him special?

“He has the talent, instinct and sense to know what’s happening,” Melson said. “Then, he’s just so competitive. He wants to get to the ball so badly.

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

Melson has coached 29 years and no one rates higher – on his teams or the opposition. Odom scored more touchdowns in that glorious senior year in Ada, but doesn’t get the same praise as Catalon.

“I’ve been telling everyone (for the three years that Catalon played at Legacy) that Jalen is the best I’ve seen and we’ve played against some really great players,” Melson said.

It’s not just what he brings to the field, it’s what he pulls from his teammates.

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

Odom is smart enough to avoid talk like that about Catalon just yet. The SEC has dashed dreams of lots of great high school players.

Right now, it’s fine for coaches just to dream about getting back on the field to coach. Maybe soon there will be practices with pads and Catalon makes them pop.

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