Zach Arnett’s defensive background suggests a different identity could be in store for his first Mississippi State squad.
Time will tell if that happens for the Bulldogs, whose potent offense remains a familiar threat.
Most important is how MSU (9-4, 4-4 Southeastern Conference in 2022) responds in its first full season after the tragic death last December of former head coach Mike Leach following complications from a heart condition. The colorful Pirate had a way with words but especially with an Air Raid offense that built the Bulldogs into one of the SEC’s most exciting units.
Arnett, 36, ascended from defensive coordinator to his first head coaching position in the emotional aftermath and won the ReliaQuest Bowl in a game that honored Leach. His intent is maintaining that momentum along with MSU’s strengths.
“I hope it’s a continuation of the identity that Mississippi State has always had as a football program: Tough, hard-nosed, disciplined,” Arnett said last month during SEC media days. “If we can have a football team who lines up excited to play with a physicality and a determination and a disciplined football team, you’ve got a chance in every game regardless of scheme.”
Returning seven offensive starters among 15 overall from a squad coming off its best regular season under Leach provides a good baseline.
Leach’s legacy lives on with senior quarterback Will Rogers, who passed for 3,974 yards and 35 touchdowns last season while piling up more school and SEC records. MSU has a new coordinator in Kevin Barbay and a pro-style scheme, but high-octane offense remains the objective for a squad that ranked 10th nationally in passing (311.2 yards per game).
“I think it’s going to grow tremendously because we’re doing a lot of formations out of running sets and still having a lot of passing sets,” running back Jo’Quavious Marks said. “With Coach Barbay, he’s big on giving his best player the ball.”
Arnett has turned the defense over to Matt Brock, who served the previous three seasons as MSU linebackers coach. That ensures familiarity for a unit that ranked fifth in the SEC in yardage (345.54 allowed per game) and against the run (135.23) in Arnett’s 3-3-5 base alignment.
Continuity is no small matter for the Bulldogs considering the stunning circumstances of last fall. Whether they’re known more for offense or defense isn’t as important as being a factor in a stacked SEC West.
Arnett helped make defense a factor under Leach and nothing has changed with him now in charge.
“There won’t be any changes because I already know how he is,” defensive tackle Jaden Crumedy said. “He’s a fiery coach. If he wants to get something done, he’s going to make sure that happens.”
OFFENSIVE BRAIN TRUST
Barbay assumes the play calling after a successful season at Appalachian State, which ranked in the top 25 nationally in several categories and upset Texas A&M in College Station. He retained 12-year MSU running backs coach Tony Hughes and brought on Chad Bumphis (receivers), Will Friend (offensive line) and Mike Schmidt (tight ends/run game) as assistants.
SEEKING NEW AIRSPACE
Rogers thrived in the Air Raid, setting 29 school passing records including 10,689 career yards that ranks eighth all-time in the SEC. More milestones are possible this season, but the senior is eager to see where he can take the Bulldogs in Barbay’s new system.
“A little more play action, more designed shots down the field,” said Rogers, who added that transferring wasn’t discussed much. “Coach Barbay did a really good job of scheming that up. It’s something we’re really looking forward to this year.”
The Bulldogs lost six starters, including playmaking cornerback Emmanuel Forbes, who returned three of six interceptions for touchdowns last fall. The five returnees are spread from front to back, with LBs Nathaniel Watson and Jett Johnson and CB Decamerion Richardson each making at least 12 starts. Johnson (115 tackles) and Watson (113, six sacks) led MSU with Richardson posting 85 stops.
The Bulldogs open against Southeast Louisiana on Sept. 2 and then host Arizona, No. 5 LSU and No. 4 Alabama all before October. Their eight-game home slate includes four non-league contests and concludes on Thanksgiving night (Nov. 23) against rival Mississippi in the Egg Bowl.
Cover Photo: Mississippi State head coach Zach Arnett speaks during NCAA college football Southeastern Conference Media Days, Tuesday, July 18, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. Mississippi State opens their season at home against Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 2. (AP Photo/George Walker IV, File)