Spring practices have concluded across the Southeastern Conference. You kept a close eye on what was happening with Kentucky football, but how did the Wildcats’ opponents fare? KSR has everything you need to know from spring about the guys that will line up on the other side of the line of scrimmage this fall. Next up is the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Replacing Mike Leach
Head coach Zach Arnett (36 years old) is the youngest head coach in the SEC at one of the toughest jobs in the conference. Mississippi State is never truly going to have one of the best rosters in the conference forcing this program to win with efficient recruiting and player development. Having a true identity with a unique scheme can certainly help matters.
Dan Mullen was an elite three-star talent developer and a great play-caller. Things worked out well for the former Urban Meyer assistant in Starkville. Mike Leach had a unique scheme that could produce high-quality quarterback play with three-star recruits consistently. He was also working out in Starkville.
Through three seasons, Leach went 19-17 with ranked road wins over Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss, and Texas A&M. The Bulldogs were set to have a fourth-year starter back at quarterback in 2023 with a chance to keep the momentum rolling. Unfortunately, Leach tragically passed away in December.
The Mississippi State administration — who was in the middle of an athletics director search after John Cohen left for Auburn — moved swiftly to promote defensive coordinator Arnett. A member of the Rocky Long coaching tree, Arnett brought his unique 3-3-5 defense to Mississippi State and put together a top-25 defense in 2023. Now he’ll get a chance to run his own program.
However, the new head coach has decided to go away from Leach’s Air Raid pass-heavy approach and is looking for more balance.
Former Central Michigan (2021) and App State (2022) offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay is now on his third play-calling gig in three seasons moving up to the SEC to call plays for Mississippi State. The former support staff assistant under Jim McElwain at Florida (2015-17) returns to the SEC and will be asking the offensive personnel in Starkville to have a different approach.
Barbay is bringing a pistol, wide zone offense that will include dialed-up play-action shot plays. Barbay will ask his Air Raid offensive line to run outside zone and complete play-action pass reps. His quarterback will have to take more vertical throws. The running backs will get more action in the traditional run game and have fewer requirements in the passing game. At wideout, the route tree will be more defined. There will actually be tight ends involved in the offense.
A lot is changing for this program. Some growing pains should be expected.
New defensive play-caller
Since Zach Arnett is stepping into the big chair, the defensive play-caller is giving up his top duties. Matt Brock has been promoted to defensive coordinator. The former special teams coordinator called the plays in State’s bowl win over Illinois and will be keeping the same structure as Arnett. However, this is his first year in a huge position.
Brock was an assistant under Leach at Washington State where he worked under defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys before following Leach to the SEC. Brock’s only experience with the 3-3-5 was with Arnett. There could be a step back for the Bulldogs with the first-time play-caller.
On top of that, Mississippi State lost first-round cornerback Emmanuel Forbes and is replacing 7 of its top 10 tacklers. State also had to go through most of spring practice without multiple defensive line starters who were sitting out due to injury. Some defensive regression seems likely.
Expect a big season from Jo’quavious Marks
After Mike Leach was hired following the 2019 season, one of the big surprises occurred when the new coaching staff was able to keep top-150 recruit Jo’quavious Marks committed. The Atlanta native stuck with Mississippi State and is now entering year four on campus.
The senior will get a chance to be a traditional running back in 2023.
Through three seasons in an Air Raid offense that was extremely pass-heavy, Marks rushed for 1,310 yards (4.5 yards per rush) and 18 touchdowns while contributing 191 receptions for 1,058 yards (5.5 yards per catch) and three touchdowns. That pass-game production will now turn into more carries.
Expect Marks to be a focal point of the offense and a sneaky All-SEC candidate.
How good is Will Rogers?
Will Rogers has started 33 games at Mississippi State and still has two seasons of eligibility remaining. The former three-star recruit out of Brandon (Miss.) High has played over 2,400 snaps and is the SEC career leader in completions (1,159). Rogers already owns Mississippi State program records in passing yards (10,689) and passing touchdowns (82). The 6-2 quarterback needs only 2,488 passing yards to pass Aaron Murray (Georgia) to become the SEC’s all-time passing leader.
Despite all of the career accolades, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned about this upcoming transition out of the Air Raid.
For the first time in his career, Rogers will be completing play fakes and looking for shot plays. After having minimal average depth of target (ADOT) of 6.1 yards through his three seasons with Mike Leach, that number will almost double this fall. Chase Brice (Appalachian State) had a much higher ADOT (10.6 yards) in 2022, and Daniel Richardson (Central Michigan) had an even higher ADOT (11.1 yards) in 2021 under Kevin Barbay. The passing approach will be drastically different for Rogers in 2023.
Instead of a dink-and-dunk passing game where rhythm and precision are key, Rogers will be asked to make lower percentage throws as his new play-caller wants to hunt explosive plays down the field on vertical concepts to complement an outside zone run game. Only time will tell if this new scheme fits Rogers’ game.
In the spring game, State’s offensive line had some protection issues, and Rogers missed on some intermediate throws. However, the senior flashed some great ball placement on go routes showing that the accuracy and arm strength combination could lead to some extra-base hits for the offense this fall.
In Arnett’s first season, Mississippi State has eight home games at Davis-Wade Stadium and one of the SEC’s easiest non-conference slates (Southeastern Louisiana, Arizona, Western Michigan, and Southern Miss). The Bulldogs draw Kentucky and South Carolina out of the SEC East. If Mike Leach was coaching this team, the expectations would be very high. However, there are a lot of unknowns surrounding this year’s Bulldogs. For State to get back to a bowl game and have a good first season under Arnett, Will Rogers must provide good QB play.
If State doesn’t get that in this new scheme, it could be a long season in Starkville.