Mississippi State promotes Zach Arnett to coach: Bulldogs elevating defensive coordinator to top role

Zach Arnett has been promoted to the full-time coach at Mississippi State, the university announced Thursday. Arnett previously served as the program’s defensive coordinator for the past three seasons until the sudden death of coach Mike Leach. Arnett is among the nation’s most highly respected defensive minds and came to Starkville, Mississippi, after nine years on staff at San Diego State.

“I’m honored that [athletic director] Bracky Brett and [president Mark] Keenum have the faith in me to lead our program,” Arnett said. “This is an extremely challenging time for both me and everyone associated with Mississippi State football. No one can ever replace Coach Leach and the impact he had on MSU and all of college football. This team is full of strong, resilient young men and we are committed to continuing to build on the foundation Coach Leach laid and continue to honor his legacy.”

Arnett, 36, has never served a head coach before and will be under a baptism by fire in the SEC. But with the Bulldogs in need of stability following the sudden death of LeachArnett was the most obvious choice on staff.

“This is an incredibly difficult time for everyone at Mississippi State, especially for our football student-athletes and staff,” said interim athletic director Bracky Brett in a statement. “As we continue to help each individual work through the sorrow that they are feeling following the passing of Coach Leach, we felt that it was crucial to provide the team with a proven leader who will be able to help them continue to navigate through these trying times and into the future. That leader is Zach Arnett. He has been a pillar of support for everyone within the program through this difficult time and during his time in Starkville. He is a tremendous, young coach who understands the culture of Mississippi State and will continue to elevate it in this new role.”

He had already been named the program’s interim head coach for the ReliaQuest Bowl against Illinois, and has consistently orchestrated quality defensive units for the Bulldogs. With the program also in search of his next athletic director following the departure of John Cohen for Auburn, Mississippi State was in no position to conduct a coaching search, especially with early National Signing Day approaching next week.

“Our football program has dealt with a stunning blow at the untimely passing of Coach Mike Leach,” said president Mark E. Keenum. “It is imperative that we bring stability and continuity to our team and our coaching staff as we move forward from this tragic event. I have tremendous confidence in Zach Arnett’s leadership and believe he is uniquely positioned to continue the progress Coach Leach brought to our program .He brings great drive and intensity to the task.”

Leach died Monday night at age 61 of complications from a heart condition. He led Mississippi State to a 19-17 mark over the past three seasons. Arnett played a key role on Leach’s staffs both in game-planning and recruiting.

Steadying presence

Arnett can be a steady presence at a tragic time for the Mississippi State family. The loss of an active Power Five coach is unprecedented in the modern era of the game, and mourning Leach’s loss will be a process for everyone. Having a familiar face in Arnett around should help stabilize the team during a tumultuous time.

With the transfer portal open and members of the Bulldogs’ recruiting class likely seeking answers amid Leach’s unexpected death, promoting from within made sense. Arnett is no charity case, though. While he may have still been a few years away from landing a big-time head coaching opportunity under normal circumstances, he’s established himself as one of the brightest young defensive minds in the sport.

youth movement

Arnett is just the latest young defensive coordinator to get a shot at a Power Five job after hires such as Dan Lanning and Marcus Freeman enjoyed successful debut seasons in 2022 at Oregon and Notre Dame, respectively. Meanwhile, Purdue just hired Illinois defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, 36, to replace Jeff Brohm.

Lanning, also 36, led Oregon to a 9-3 mark and as high as a No. 6 in the AP Top 25 this season after serving as Georgia’s defensive coordinator for three seasons. Similarly, Freeman — you guessed it, also 36 — led Notre Dame to an 8-4 regular season that included a stretch of eight wins in nine games after a rough start to the season for the Fighting Irish.

Both were regarded as somewhat risky choices considering their youth and lack of head coaching experience. But in the wake of Mario Cristobal’s exit from Oregon for Miami and Brian Kelly’s departure from Notre Dame to LSU, Lanning and Freeman have shown plenty of promise.

Notre Dame’s 2023 recruiting class is ranked No. 3 nationally under Freeman ahead of next Wednesday’s early National Signing Day while Oregon’s is ranked No. 12 — first in the Pac-12 — under Lanning.

Another former Power Five defensive coordinator, Mike Elko of Duke, landed the head coaching job at Duke last offseason after working at Texas A&M for four seasons and guided the Blue Devils to an 8-4 record while winning ACC Coach of the Year. Arnett will try and follow in that mold of those three from last season and become the latest young defensive coordinator to thrive in a head coaching opportunity.

defensive direction

This will mark the first time since Jackie Sherrill’s tenure from 1991-2003 that the Bulldogs will be led by a coach with a defensive pedigree. Sylvester Croom, Dan Mullen, Joe Moorhead and Leach were each coaches with offensive backgrounds.

After playing linebacker at New Mexico from 2005-08, Arnett cut his teeth as a coach at San Diego State under Rocky Long. With Arnett as one of the nation’s youngest defensive coordinators in 2018, the Aztecs ranked No. 21 nationally in total defense. The following season, the Aztecs were historically dominant under Arnett’s leadership, ranking No. 5 in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense by allowing just 12.7 points per game.

Arnett’s defensive units at Mississippi State haven’t been quite so statistically impressive, but that’s partially because of the offensive system the Bulldogs ran under Leach. The Air Raid isn’t always the most attractive scheme for defensive coordinators to work under because of the pressure that quick three-and-outs can put on the defense. But Arnett’s Bulldogs have been consistently steady. This year’s 8-4 squad ranks No. 39 nationally in total defense and tied for No. 21 turnovers forced.

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