Why self-described curmudgeon Zach Arnett is perfect for Mississippi State football | Toppmeyer
Zach Arnett is a self-described curmudgeon.
So, pardon Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator if he isn’t reveling in the Bulldogs ranking sixth in the SEC in scoring defense last season, during Arnett’s first year in Starkville. That’s six spots higher than Mississippi State ranked in 2019.
And excuse Arnett if he isn’t ready to predict defensive dominance in 2021, despite his unit returning eight starters and forming the backbone of the team.
It’s just Arnett’s nature to be a touch of a pessimist.
“Every week, (as a defensive coach), you’re pretty convinced you don’t have the pieces,” Arnett told me Monday. “That’s just the world of defensive coaching now. You’re constantly miserable.”
Imagine how Arnett would feel if he didn’t oversee a unit that once again should rank in the top half of the conference.
Yes, MSU has holes to plug – namely, the departures of Erroll Thompson, last season’s leading tackler, along with defensive linemen Kobe Jones and Marquiss Spencer, who combined for five sacks last season.
But a sturdy core returns, highlighted by linebacker Aaron Brule and cornerbacks Martin Emerson and Emmanuel Forbes.
It’s a testament to the SEC's talent that the Bulldogs didn’t place a single defensive player on either the media’s or the coaches’ preseason All-SEC teams – and also a reminder that State’s top players are frequently overlooked.
The lack of preseason recognition won’t bother Arnett, who would prefer his defense have a blue-collar, bring-your-lunch-pail-to-work identity.
“It’s been a blessing to be here and work with these guys," Arnett said.
Brule describes Arnett as embracing an attack-first defensive philosophy while setting a standard that doesn’t leave room for excuses.
“You either do what he asks you to do, or you'll be held accountable by your teammates, by him, and anyone involved with our defense,” Brule said.
Dependable defenses aren't uncommon at Mississippi State. Last season marked the sixth time in the past 11 seasons that the Bulldogs ranked in the top half of the SEC for scoring defense.
Interestingly, for all the talk about coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, the Bulldogs ranked 13th in the conference last season in scoring offense. For MSU to improve on last year’s 4-7 record, the offense must progress under returning quarterback Will Rogers.
What Zach Arnett likes about coaching Mississippi State under Mike Leach
Arnett, 34, is a rising commodity.
He joined Leach’s staff after overseeing a San Diego State defense that ranked No. 2 nationally in scoring defense in 2019. During this past offseason, his name was linked in news reports to defensive coordinator openings at LSU, Texas and Oregon.
As to why Arnett remains at State, he answers in two parts. For one, he said, coaches’ interest in other jobs is sometimes overblown by media reports. Also, he loves working for Leach.
“I get to call the defense the way I want it and do all the things that I believe in to give us the best chance to be successful,” Arnett said. “And the guy I work for, 100% supports it.”
Case in point came during a 31-24 loss last season at Georgia.
Georgia faced a third-and-20 midway through the fourth quarter,with the game tied at 24. Arnett blitzed six defenders. Georgia picked up the pressure, and JT Daniels completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to Kearis Jackson.
In Arnett’s mind, he deserved a butt-chewing for a play call that didn’t work and resulted in what proved to be the winning score.
Instead, he received support.
“My dumbass makes a call that screwed our chances of winning, and the guy I work for, all he said was, ‘Heck, yeah. Keep doing it. Do it even more next week,’” Arnett said.
“I’m loyal to Coach Leach as long as he’ll have me.”
On Mississippi State’s scheme, leadership and small-town living
I learn quickly during my phone conversation with Arnett that when you ask him a question, you’re bound to get a straightforward, no-holds-barred answer.
To hell with coach speak.
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When I ask about the impact of Arnett’s 3-3-5 scheme on Mississippi State’s success, he swats that away.
“I don’t care whether it’s our defense or any other one in college football,” Arnett said, “people make way too much of a deal about scheme. … It’s the execution of the scheme by the players that makes it work.”
Later, I ask whether a player is emerging as a leader. To which he responds: Who cares?
“We’ve got a senior in our secondary, Fred Peters,” Arnett said, “and he might be one of the most quiet guys on our team, but you know what he does? All he does is show up every day, know exactly what his job is, do it better than everybody else, and he’s our most consistent football player.
“I’d rather just have 11 of those guys on the field and not have to worry about all the rah-rah.”
Arnett spent the first 33½ years of his life out West. An Albuquerque, New Mexico, native, Arnett was a football and baseball star in high school before playing college football for the New Mexico Lobos. Other than an 11-day stint on Syracuse's staff, Arnett had spent the entirety of his coaching career at San Diego State, before joining Leach’s staff.
So, how did Arnett adjust to life in the South? On that topic, he’s no curmudgeon.
“I could not be happier to live in a small town like Starkville,” Arnett said. “I hope I never have to move to a big city again. I really do. And that’s obviously, well, I mean that with all offense that should be taken by large metropolitan areas out there, to be honest. Maybe don’t print that, but, hey, what the hell, why not?”
Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at BToppmeyer@gannett.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.