Updated: Jan 13
by LONN PHILLIPS SULLIVAN
Today, Miss State's 1st year defensive coordinator Zach Arnett arrived in Baton Rouge alongside his wife for an official interview with LSU staff...and the signs are a lot more transparent than the Marcus Freeman situation.
Despite his popularity, Arnett is far too young and less traveled than Freeman to attract the type of Notre Dame / Texas-esque suitors as the Tigers' previous candidate had at his beck and call...due to this lack of extreme competition, does that mean LSU have found their man?
I believe so...
Outside of the disappointment with Marcus Freeman, Zach Arnett is the best choice for LSU's defense.
Not only is his 3-3-5 scheme perfect for the type of personnel LSU already have on roster, his youth and aggressive mindset fits perfectly with Coach Orgeron's identity for his Tigers.
Also....his journey indicates exactly why he'd be a success at LSU:
Arnett grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico as a two sport athlete, playing linebacker for La Cueva High School, however his most dominant sport was baseball.
Arriving at the University of New Mexico, Arnett was present on a baseball scholarship:
"He was a much more sought-after baseball player,” his future football coach Rocky Long said of Arnett to SI. “He came on a baseball scholarship.”
Playing catcher at La Cueva High School, Arnett was batting .477, producing 20 home runs, 110 runs scored and 141 runs driven in....to say his future was in football was beyond a stretch.
Labeled the "Mike Ditka of La Cueva High" by his baseball coach Stan McKeever, the La Cueva skipper continued the praise: "He's such a heads-up player and he's not afraid to say something to a teammate to get his head on straight," he told the Albuquerque Journal back in 2005.
Well, Mike Ditka is a great comparison for Arnett: as their leader and "anchor" as McKeever called him, La Cueva won 70 straight games (a national record) and three state title games...all as Arnett produced big moments and boosted his teammates.
But as soon as he arrived at University of New Mexico, Arnett's desires changed back to football full time, giving up baseball completely.
“He always wanted to play football too, so he was (walking on) on the football team,” UNM Head Coach Rocky Long said. “But if you’re a walk-on on the football team, obviously your scholarship, even though it’s paid by baseball, is counted at football. So for us to keep him on the football team, he had to prove to us that he could be a player and eventually a starter, which he did. He became a very important part of our team, then team captain and all those sorts of things.”
Playing four seasons at LB, Arnett racked up 200 tackles and with 6 forced fumbles during his 2008 senior year, the UNM linebacker led the nation in the category.
“As a player, he’s one of those guys that overachieved,” Long said of Arnett. “I think he’s a really tough competitor. I think it means a lot to him. He prepares to be successful, then whenever he has a chance, he plays hard and works hard to be the best that he can be.”
An overachiever....a guy who took whatever opportunity was there and ran with it....
I think I like this guy...
When his UNM Head Coach Rocky Long moved to San Diego State University and needed someone to drill and grill his LBs into SDSU's new 3-3-5 scheme, who better than Arnett?
“He’s smart and loves the game of football,” Long said. “Whenever you have an opportunity to hire somebody like that or give someone a chance like that, you’re gonna do it. And just the fact he played (in the 3-3-5) made the biggest difference because he knew what we were all about. And he knew the expectation level that we had. But him being smart and wanting to be a great coach is the number one factor that made you want to give him a chance.”
Of course....success followed.
He rose from LBs Coach to defensive coordinator in just over 3 seasons, and after 2 years leading the defense for Long's Aztecs, Arnett accelerated SDSU's squad from an unranked defense to a Top 15 nationally ranked leviathan, impressing in multiple categories over that span including rushing yards allowed per game, rushing yards allowed per carry as well as yards allowed per play (among other impressive numbers).
In 11 games during 2019 (his final season as DC for SDSU), Arnett's defense allowed 17 points or less in 11 of their 13 games, holding UCLA to 14, BYU to 3, and in 2018 the former Lobo had to return to his old UNM stomping grounds to beat New Mexico 31-23....for many viewers, this SDSU defense were incredible viewing.
While lacking household, high profile NFL names, this defense were ferocious and played at an intensity level few had ever witnessed in the Mountain West Conference....and that component was all down to the mentality of Zach Arnett.
Meanwhile, once legendary collegiate coach Mike Leach accepted the Miss State job, he knew he absolutely had to go and grab a defensive coordinator capable of battling the SEC....so, conventional wisdom would indicate Leach's next hire should've been an SEC regular or at least someone with adequate SEC experience.
Instead, he hired someone with zero SEC games on his resume, Zach Arnett from SDSU to become his defensive coordinator at Mississippi State in his first SEC season...to say Mike Leach had trust in Zach Arnett's abilities is putting it mildly....but the truth is a little muddier:
“I’m probably just lucky enough that Coach Dunn is retired and Coach Long didn’t want to give it a go here,” Arnett said last summer. “Here I am as the fortunate benefactor of that.” Leach wanted to run the 3-3-5 scheme, a defensive formation which had been successful 20 years earlier for Miss State under former DC Joe Lee Dunn.
Since Rocky Long wasn't interested in heading for Starkville, Mike Leach reached out to ask his old friend Long "who could run the 3-3-5?"
Without hesitation Long named Zach Arnett and Mike Leach "took it from there" as Rocky puts it.....a year on, and we can look back and solidly say Leach made the right hire.
Arnett arrived at Mississippi State inheriting a defense which had lost 7 starters from the year prior and were ranked 73rd in total defense...(Miss State actually held Burrow's LSU to 36 points, our second lowest total of the year).
In 2019, Miss State were allowing 6.3 yards per play, 5,189 yards of total offense, 399.2 overall yards per game, 375 points surrendered, 35 TDs allowed, and 264 total first downs.
With Arnett during 2020, Miss State dropped to 5.5 yards per play, 3,803 yards of total offense, 380.3 overall yards per game, 283 points given up, 25 TDs allowed, and 208 first downs....a difference of 56 less first downs, 10 fewer touchdowns, 1,386 less total yards and 0.8 yards per play.
For a first year defensive coordinator in the SEC, during a pandemic year, these numbers and performances are incredible...especially when playing with an ineffective run and gun offensive set-up from Mike Leach, serially sending Arnett's defense back out there time after time. Regardless of the circumstances, Arnett's defense held opponents to 31 points or less in 5 separate losses, proving Miss State's defense was far from the problem with this team's horrorshow 2020 campaign.
Arnett's men held Auburn to 24 while LSU allowed double that amount on Halloween with a defensive roster 5x better on their bench alone...
#3 Ohio State, #4 Notre Dame, #7 Florida, LSU, #13 A&M and Arkansas all gave up more points to (National Champions) Alabama than Arnett's Miss State, while Georgia gave up just as many (41, although Miss State technically only allowed 34 as Bama's Surtain scored a defensive TD);
Remember, Arnett's players did this all during a game where Mike Leach's offense were completely shut out.
Without any offensive help to stop the bleeding, Arnett's defenders forced and recovered 2 fumbles and shut out the vicious 2020 Alabama offense during an entire 3rd quarter, quite an accomplishment when you watch what the Tide did against those aforementioned ranked units:
In fact, Alabama were only shutout in 2 quarters all season, the 3rd quarter vs Florida in the SEC Championship game and the 3rd quarter against Miss State...in addition, while high ranked opponents were eviscerated for 28, 24 or 21 point quarters by the Tide (sometimes for multiple occasions in the same game), the most Miss State's defense gave up was 17. They opened poorly down 17 before they could blink, then recovered for only 10 in the second quarter. After Zach's intense halftime speech and adjustments, Arnett's defense shut out Mac Jones, DeVontae Smith and Najee Harris for an entire 3rd quarter to help buoy the offense, before finally their tired group let in two touchdowns.
But the words of Miss State's leading tackler Errol Thompson (95 tackles, 4 TFL, 3 sacks) tell us all we really need to know about the 34 year old defensive coordinator....
Comparing Arnett to Todd Grantham, Bob Shoop & Peter Sirmon, all three coordinators Thompson had played under in his four years in Starkville, Errol said: "He's meant everything. This is a bold statement, but he's probably the greatest and best defensive coordinator I've had." Thompson, the 4 year collegiate veteran, said this about Arnett after only one pandemic-shortened season in which many meetings were through Zoom or had to be cancelled altogether....that's the effect he has....that's the energy and pulse of Arnett.
It wasn't a shock to many when Zach Arnett became one of the finalists for this season's Broyles Award, the annual honors for the nation's top assistant coaches... while his rise may have been meteoric, he's earned everything the right way along his path....and he's never forgotten his roots:
“...he texted me the other day,” his old Head Coach Rocky Long laughed, “The other day we (UNM) had a game where we had eight sacks or nine sacks against Fresno State and he wanted to get a copy of the deal because he wanted to see if we were running any blitzes he didn’t know.”
Ultimate competitor....tireless "improver"....relentless drive...overachiever....versatile play-caller, successful leader...award-nominated pedigree....SEC-flavored aggressive edge....a young leader with a mature mind, capable of relating to his youngest, greenest players as well as his most grizzled veterans....
If Marcus Freeman was "perfect"....then Zach Arnett is right....
Perfect is just a faded dream, an unattainable chase behind the curtains of Oz...
Right is what LSU needs to win another National Championship, right is what Orgeron needs to keep Raesjon Davis aboard the 2021 class and right is what LSU need to maximize the potential of every single Tiger on that 2021 defensive roster, from the returning D-linemen and secondary, the untested / unproven LBs like Lee, Webb, Sampah and Josh White or the players who were harmed most by Pelini's "system" (Flott, Clark, Harris, Hampton).
Just imagine what Arnett would be able to do with this group of Tigers' defenders, all you have to do is look at this squad:
STINGLEY, RICKS, OJULARI, WARD, ANTHONY, GAYE, PHILLIP WEBB, MO HAMPTON, JAQUELIN ROY, JORDAN TOLES & 2021 freshmen: MAASON SMITH, SAGE RYAN, SAIVION JONES, LANDON JACKSON & RAESJON DAVIS (hopefully)....that's just the tip of the iceberg as far as options are concerned.
From the above list alone, LSU returns 15 combined INTs, FFs & FRs, 14 of 2020's 24 total sacks, 3 of their 4 defensive scores and a multitude of young 2021 freshme