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Thursday, September 20, 2018

Football

After two years of waiting, Catalon’s ready to shine


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Catalon (middle) chose to transfer to UH after coach Applewhite accepted the offensive coordinator job for the Cougars. As a Houston native, the running back was ready to return home. | UH Athletics Courtesy Photo

The 2016 college football season is less than a month away, and the start does not come a moment too soon for one member of the football team.

Red shirt sophomore running back Duke Catalon is in his third season of being a collegiate athlete. He has yet to see game action.

“I’m eager, it’s been a long time,” Catalon said. “I’m kind of nervous because (the season opener against Oklahoma Sooners) will be my first game. I’m ready to get on the field and play.”

The Houston native attended Eisenhower High School in the Aldine Independent School District. Dominating on the gridiron, the 210-pound tailback impressed scouts and was quickly touted as a four-star prospect and as the 25th best player in a state known for producing outstanding football talent.

Following his senior season, the University of Texas came knocking. Former UT co-offensive coordinator and current UH offensive coordinator Major Applewhite recruited the running back out of high school.

He was also the driving force behind Catalon’s decision to attend UT.

“I just liked him,” Applewhite said at UH Media Day. “The more time I spent with him, talked to him about his mother and talked to him about his dad and his siblings and what kind of kid he was from peewee to junior high to high school, he’s just a really great name in the community.”

Catalon accepted a scholarship offer with the Longhorns and began fall practice months later. Lost in the bevy of talented running backs on the Longhorns’ roster, Catalon would redshirt his freshman season and postpone his college career.

At the start of 2014, a change in the coaching regime at UT led Applewhite to step down from his position at the university. With a similar change happening at UH, Tom Herman was hired and wanted Applewhite to be his play-caller.

With familiarity gone, Catalon announced he would transfer to UH on Aug. 19, 2015. Due to NCAA eligibility rules, the former UT running back would have to sit out yet another season.

“I’m from Houston, so it was home,” Catalon said. “I got recruited by coach Applewhite when he was at Texas, so I just thought it was a great fit to come here. I’d rather be at home with coach Applewhite.”

Catalon is a reticent guy. Herman admitted in the beginning that he wasn’t sure what to make of his new running back.

As a player who transferred from arguably the most high-profile football program in the nation to a Group of Five school in Houston’s Third Ward, it was tough to gauge how the 19-year-old would respond. Applewhite’s views on Catalon eventually rubbed off on Herman, who has big expectations for his newest starting running back.

“I really like Duke,” Herman said. “Took me a while to like him, because he’s such a quiet guy, I thought he was a ‘too cool for school guy.’ Turns out he was just really serious and really focused and that’s OK. He’s a punishing runner. When you hit him, you feel it, not the other way around.”

With the exit of running backs Ryan Jackson and Kenneth Farrow thinning out the Cougars’ running back depth, the starting job belongs to Catalon.

Heisman-hopeful quarterback Greg Ward Jr. is excited to have him on the field as well. Ward knows a strong running game will make his job much easier and is hoping that is exactly what happens.

“Duke is a great player,” Ward said. “He is going to make a lot of plays. He takes a lot of the pressure off me running the ball.”

Despite entering his third year of college and enduring hundreds of grueling practices, Catalon does not yet see himself as a vocal leader on the team. The redshirt-sophomore instead looks up to Ward, who Catalon says already knows how to get to a bowl game.

When he takes the field on Sept. 3 to take on the University of Oklahoma at NRG Stadium, it will be the first chapter in a story that has had a far too lengthy prologue.

Two years of practices have prepared him for this moment and he is ready to seize the opportunity.

“I felt like I just wanted to stop at one point, but I just had to keep on going,” Catalon said. “It’s my first time in two years to come out and play so I’m just trying to do whatever coach wants me to do.”

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