Arnett ready to put his own stamp on Mississippi State’s football program

Published 7:19 pm Tuesday, July 18, 2023

By Jim Mashek

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Zach Arnett is the youngest head football coach in the Southeastern Conference, and SEC commissioner Greg Sankey pointed out on Tuesday that he’s the first such coach of Hispanic descent.

But few coaches have blazed a path quite like Arnett’s predecessor, the late Mike Leach, and Arnett is determined to keep the Bulldogs relevant in the cutthroat SEC West after last year’s 9-4 season and victory over Illinois in the ReliaQuest Bowl.

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“Mike Leach’s fingerprints, his impact on the game of football, are evident throughout the game,” Arnett said Tuesday after being introduced by Sankey at SEC Media Days in Nashville. “I’m humbled, and proud, to be the head coach at Mississippi State University. Without a doubt, we have the most loyal fan base in all of college athletics.

“I could not ask for a better collection of people to work with. We keep it pretty simple in our football building … let’s go to work.”

Arnett, 36, was a linebacker at the University of New Mexico who logged nine seasons as an assistant coach at San Diego State before joining Leach’s Mississippi State staff as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator in 2020.

Mississippi State has gone to a bowl game in each of Arnett’s three seasons in Starkville, and went 9-4 last season while winning four of their last five games. The surge included a thrilling Egg Bowl victory, when State handed Ole Miss a bitter 24-22 defeat in Oxford.

When Leach was hospitalized with a heart condition last December, and died about three weeks before the Bulldogs’ New Year’s Day bowl game with Illinois, Arnett was the logical coach to replace the colorful, innovative Leach. Mississippi State wasted no time in naming him the permanent head coach on Dec. 15.

“Coach Arnett has done a real good job of just being himself,” said MSU junior quarterback Will Rogers, who joined his coach at Media Days. “He’s brought his own style to the program, but I think he’s the perfect guy for Mississippi State.”

Rogers said Arnett has been able to adapt to the changes brought to college football by the Name/Image/Likeness element and the NCAA Transfer Portal. The former Brandon High School star completed 68 percent of his passes last season, his second as the MSU starter, while throwing for 3,713 yards and 34 touchdowns. He was intercepted just six times.

“I’ve had a real charmed coaching existence,” Arnett said. “When you’re a young coach, and you get a chance to be a defensive coordinator, in the SEC, you’ll pack your bags and walk there, if you have to.”

Mississippi State will play its first three games at Scott Field/Davis Wade Stadium. The first two are against non-conference opponents Southeastern Louisiana and Arizona, before LSU comes in for the SEC opener on Sept. 16.

Arnett said he’s learned some things about defensive strategy from the late Joe Lee Dunn, who was Jackie Sherrill’s MSU defensive coordinator for much of Sherrill’s 13-year tenure as the Bulldogs’ head coach.

“Coaches are constantly trying to steal ideas, and make them your own, a little bit,” Arnett said. “Everyone knows the influence of Joe Lee Dunn at Mississippi State … It’s the 3-3-5, but it’s kind of evolved, a little bit, to fit the modern game.

“It’s the only defense I’ve ever been a part of, but it all starts with the players.”

Arnett was also joined at SEC Media Days by sixth-year MSU senior defensive lineman Jaden Crumedy and senior running back Jo’quavious Marks.

Marks said Arnett handled the unusual situation in December’s bowl game in Tampa with skills that carried over to spring football and preparations for summer camp.

“I think (Arnett) did an amazing job, in the bowl game, especially under the circumstances,” Marks said. “He understands that Mississippi State is usually going to be an underdog, that we’re a ‘blue collar’ kind of football team.”

Arnett said that’s something that’s understood from Biloxi to Brookhaven, from Vancleave to Vicksburg, and throughout the Magnolia State.

“I’ve gotten that question quite a bit, over the last few months,” Arnett said. “It’s a program that’s tough, hard nosed. Disciplined. People know when you play Mississippi State, you better pack your lunch, and a hard hat, because it’s going to be a physical game.

“It’s going to be about effort, and tenacity. That’s sort of been Mississippi State’s identity since … well, forever.”

Jim Mashek is a longtime Mississippi sports writer who is now based in Bowling Green, Kentucky. You can read more of his work at his website