On Tuesday, Mississippi State defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Zach Arnett chatted with Cowbell Corner regarding his scheme and much more. What follows is Part 1 in a two-part series. Part 2 will be posted later this week. The interview transcript has been slightly edited in spots for clarity:
Cowbell Corner: Upon your hiring, you were of course identified as a “3-3-5” guy. Is that a pretty accurate description of you and your style and what you like to do?
Arnett: I think it’s an accurate description of the personnel we’ve had on the field. You have three guys that are called defensive linemen, three guys that are the linebackers and five (defensive backs). I don’t think it’s necessarily an accurate description of the scheme. If you’re looking at clips of what we did at San Diego State, by no means are we in a 3-3 stack every snap. In fact, there’s probably less of that than other looks. You’d have to ask an offensive guy how they’d break the scheme down and if it’s a 3-3-5 or if it’s something different. For us, it’s just all about trying to maximize the personnel on the field and it was the right combination of guys at San Diego State. We’ll obviously have to get into practice and in fall camp to decide if that’s the right combination of the personnel on the field here.
Cowbell Corner: How much of an idea have you been able to get these last few months for the talent you have on defense and your ability to ultimately do what you want to do on defense, given the restrictions you’ve had and no practices and such? Is it going to be a waiting game for you to actually get the guys on the field in camp to see?
Arnett: I think you could give some B.S. answer and say, ‘We know we have this’, or, ‘We know we have that’. We haven’t got to have a single practice with them. How could any coach honestly know what your guys are good at doing, what you’re good at and what maybe you struggle with? It really is a waiting game. We have to get on the field and practice and figure out in a hurry, ‘Alright, these are our best players. This is what we do well. Now, how do we build the package around those skills and those guys – those top 11 guys?
Cowbell Corner: Given what your players have done in the past, should this be a somewhat easy transition for them, or are you concerned about being able to have the time to install and transition these guys to your style?
Arnett: I think you watch the stuff (from the last few years) because you can get some familiarity with the guys that are coming back. It obviously allows you to watch teams you are going to face and what they do, or at least what their mentality was last year. So you watch all that, but at the same time, you don’t want to make all your judgements based just on what they were doing then. Because sometimes they were being asked to do different things than maybe what you’re going to do in your defense. So you don’t want to pre-judge a guy without having worked with him in practice, where you’d really get a good feel and be be able to develop your own opinion of the player. So yeah, you try to play the balancing game. How much are you going to watch so you can get some familiarity with what their strengths are and, okay, now I’m watching too much because I haven’t even gotten to have a single practice with the guy out on the field. But the nice thing about Coach Leach really is, whether we get one week to prepare for the first game or six weeks or whatever it is, there’s no excuses. You’ve got to get them coached up and go out there and compete to win. Other teams in the country are going through the same things. There isn’t anyone feeling sorry for anyone. You’ve got to line up and play.
Cowbell Corner: Is it that much of a transition between what former defensive coordinator Bob Shoop did and what you like to do?
Arnett: To be honest with you and to be fair, Coach Shoop did a really nice job here. Shoot, they were the number one defense in the country a couple of years ago. I don’t know him at all, but I think there are philosophically some similarities to what we do. From what I’ve seen, he likes being aggressive and playing man-free and blitzing and bringing five or six at times. There are going to be some similarities. I was talking and running position meetings. You can put some clips on of things they did defensively over the last couple years and you can say, ‘Hey guys, guess what. That call, you might have called it this. Well we call it this, but it’s really the exact same defense. Man-free is man-free. Line up on that guy and cover him wherever he goes.' There are some similarities that hopefully will make the transition easier for some of the players.
Cowbell Corner: It doesn’t appear we’re that far from you all finally getting to get on the field with your guys, even if it’s with no pads on. It has been reported the NCAA’s D-I Council is expected to approve a plan on June 17 that would get you all back on the field for some types of workouts by mid-July. After months of virtual instruction, can you put into words how much more beneficial that is going to be for all of you?
Arnett: As coaches and players, we want to be around each other. You know, the last few days we’ve had voluntary workouts allowed, but we’re not allowed to observe them. We’re not allowed to have in-person meetings with the players. So we’re still not having really any interaction with players. So (when the plan is approved to return to workouts) it actually means we can get around them and get on the field and they can hear our voice in person as opposed to through some computer screen. I think that’s going to be really good. And obviously, if you’re a player and you can line up with an offensive formation in front of you – or if you’re an offensive player, a defensive formation in front of you – to line up and actually see the opposing side of the ball in front of you as opposed to having to envision it through a computer screen, it goes a long way towards helping to learn the details and ins and outs of the scheme. We can talk all we want about what should happen looking on a computer screen, but you’ve actually got to get the human body to process it while everything is running full speed and act accordingly. It sounds really easy to do when you’re just watching on film. It’s a little tougher in person.