FAYETTEVILLE – Between them in last Saturday’s season-opener against Georgia, Arkansas safety Jalen Catalon and defensive end Zach Williams combined for 16 tackles, one a sack, forced a fumble and broke up a pass.
Not surprisingly both became requested topics for Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman to discuss on Wednesday’s SEC Coaches/Media teleconference before the Razorbacks’ closed practice for Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. SEC Network Alternate Channel televised SEC West game at Mississippi State.
Arkansas led nationally No. 4 Georgia, 10-5 midway through the third quarter before losing, 37-10 amid a combination of defensive fatigue and Arkansas offensive and special teams issues.
Catalon, a redshirt freshman in his starting debut, sparked Arkansas’ early defensive stand. He made nine tackles, forced a fumble and broke up a pass.
Sophomore backup Williams, the son of former Razorbacks 1980s linebacker Rickey Williams and lettering last year as a reserve, was summoned extensively when senior starting defensive end Dorian Gerald exited with an injured ankle. Williams responded with seven tackles including a sack.
With Gerald still ailing when the Hogs practiced Tuesday, Williams and sophomore Mataio Soli, a starting defensive end last year held out for health reasons against Georgia but since returned to practice, likely must play key roles trying to pressure SEC record-setting quarterback K.J. Costello in Mississippi State Coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense.
Costello’s 60 passes netted five touchdowns and a SEC game record 623 yards in the Bulldogs’ 44-34 upset last Saturday over reigning national/SEC champion LSU in Baton Rouge, La.
“Zach, he played some ball last year for us,” first-year Arkansas Coach Sam Pittman noted of Williams’ 12 tackles in nine games for the 2019 Razorbacks. I thought he played hard. Obviously, he got a sack. So that’ll do something for his confidence. We’re certainly going to need him for pressure on Costello on Saturday.”
Gerald’s availability for Saturday is “wait and see,” Pittman said Wednesday morning.
Catalon drew postgame plaudits. His performance did second half suffer with the Razorbacks’ defense on the field for over 36 of the game’s 60 minutes.
Arkansas’ offense struggled against a Georgia defense returning eight starters from last year’s national leader in rushing and scoring defense.
“Catalon played well,” Pittman said. “He missed a few tackles in the second half. Certainly we’re working on our tackling, we have all year. But he made some big hits, and he is a leader back there. And for a redshirt freshman he’s a fine player and we’re awfully happy he’s on our team.”
While Georgia ranks No. 4 nationally, it’s because of its defense, not its offense still trying to establish an identity since 3-year starter Jake Fromm turned pro.
Graduate transfer via Stanford quarterback Costello has achieved his Mississippi State identify in one game including three receivers netting 183, 158 and 125 yards. Well surpassing 100, wideout Osirus Mitchell, 7 catches for 183 yards, running back Kylin Hill, 8 for 158 yards, and wideout JaVonta Payton, 6 for 126 yards used the whole field against LSU.
“Obviously he (Catalon) has a different set of challenges this week,” Pittman said. “Because he’s going to have to be all over the field because of the Air Raid.”
Offensively, the Razorbacks have drilled extensively this week on getting properly aligned in offensive coordinator Kendal Briles’ attack. Getting his own players aligned distracted Arkansas quarterback Feleipe Franks against Georgia, Pittman said.
“ I know that’s part of the quarterback’s job,” Pittman said. “But it’s hard to look downfield, see what’s going on, see pre-snap reads as a quarterback when you’re looking at your own team trying to get them lined up. We’ve done a much better job of that this week.”
Regarding preparation off Monday and Tuesday’s closed practices, Pittman said, “Our football team has had two really good practices and they have a great attitude. And I like (against Georgia) the way we ran to the ball on defense.”
What about Mississippi State?
“Man, did they look good on film,” Pittman said. “They had just an outstanding game vs. LSU.”
Arkansas’ Oct. 10 SEC West game vs. the Auburn Tigers will kick off at 3 p.m. in Auburn, Ala. on the SEC Network.