Where does Mississippi State go from here?
The untimely death of coach Mike Leach earlier this month was incredibly tragic and deserves all the recognition it has received but Mississippi State as a program must move forward despite those difficulties especially with signing day around the corner.
Here’s a look at what steps have been taken - and what others need to be taken - as the Bulldogs forge ahead:
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HIRING ARNETT QUICKLY WAS SMART
Mississippi State has an interim athletic director and because of the unexpected nature of Leach’s passing, the school was not ready for a national search to name its next coach. One wouldn’t be needed anyway because it was super smart to back Zach Arnett as the team’s next coach.
According to reports, Arnett showed phenomenal leadership and compassion through the difficult news of Leach being rushed to the hospital and then his shocking death. He is also a phenomenal defensive coordinator who showed loyalty to Leach and his players by passing up other opportunities in recent years as his defenses looked great in Starkville.
One thing to consider: Under Leach, the identity and makeup of this team was of an Air Raid offense and all that came with that. With Arnett in charge, he will have to strike a balance and determine exactly what he envisions for the offense while continuing the Bulldogs’ impressive defensive showing it’s had under his tutelage.
With Arnett, there is stability and trust. After such a traumatic event as Leach’s passing, it’s just what the Mississippi State players need.
KEEP THE RECRUITING CLASS TOGETHER
What’s incredible - and a testament to the players and the coaches still on staff - is that no Mississippi State commit has backed off his pledge since Leach’s passing and the Bulldogs even added a flip from former Cincinnati pledge three-star cornerback Luke Evans.
Wide receiver commit Justin Brown said nothing changes in his pledge. Creed Whittemore said something similar. Nakai Poole said he’s locked in. Same goes for Jacoby Bellazar. In honoring Leach, quarterback pledge Chris Parson had really personal and positive things to say about the former coach and his own pledge to Mississippi State.
Running back commit Seth Davis maybe said it best.
“Coach Arnett is great and coach Leach would have wanted us to ‘Stick With State,’” Davis said. “We have a very strong quarterback, o-line, receivers and defense coming in and I love Starkville. We are going to surprise a lot of people over the next four years.”
LANDING ROGERS IN THE PORTAL WAS A BIG STEP
When his recruitment was unfolding in the 2022 class, Mississippi State was squarely involved with Khamauri Rogers, a four-star cornerback from Lexington (Miss.) Holmes County, as Miami and Ole Miss were some other competitors. He ended up picking the Hurricanes but it did not last long.
After not seeing much time at Miami, Rogers decided a few days after Leach’s death to hit the transfer portal and he picked Mississippi State. His talent cannot be ignored as Rogers was ranked as the No. 16 cornerback in the 2023 class and sixth in the state.
Hitting the portal could be advantageous for every program and it was in this case for Mississippi State with Rogers.
GOOD NEWS COMES FROM CURRENT PLAYERS
Those aren’t the only ones as starting defensive linemen Jaden Crumedy, Jordan Davis and Nathan Pickering have all said they’re coming back to Starkville as well. That kind of production cannot be ignored and it’s an important step that not only are players backing up Arnett with their words but also with their actions.
AN OFFENSIVE IDENTITY WILL BE NEEDED
No one can forget that Leach called his own plays, off a tiny little sheet of paper on the sidelines, where he would give his own hand signals and so many times, the ball moved seamlessly down the field and into the end zone. For so many reasons but play-calling being one of them, Leach was a unique mind and incredibly skilled in what he did.
Moving forward, Mississippi State won’t be able to recreate it but Arnett will have to find an offensive coordinator and the Bulldogs will have to forge an identity on offense, whether that’s continuing the Air Raid system (which the offensive roster is built for) or to change to another look.
It’s a crucial decision, maybe the most important, that Arnett will make early in his head coaching career. Leach knew offense as well as anybody in college football. But it was also a unique style all his own. Can Mississippi State continue down that path or is it time for a new look on that side of the ball?