Editor’s note: This is the 5th in a series previewing every SEC West team’s defense. Next: Ole Miss.

While the new Air Raid offense will draw much of the attention in Starkville, the new 3-3-5 defense led by first-year defensive coordinator Zach Arnett brings its own spotlight. For starters, can Arnett continue the success he generated at San Diego State?

In his last 2 seasons at San Diego State, Arnett’s defense ranked in the top 15 nationally in multiple categories, including rushing yards allowed per game, rushing yards allowed per carry, and yards allowed per play. Last year, the Aztecs were No. 1 in the country in total rushing yards allowed.

This will be Arnett’s first season outside of the West, as he played linebacker for 4 seasons (2005-08) at New Mexico. He was briefly the DC at Syracuse before Leach hired him in Starkville. Arnett’s entire coaching career has been in San Diego, from graduate assistant from 2011-13, to position coach, and finally DC since 2018.

The 33-year-old takes over a defense that ranked No. 1 in the SEC in total defense in 2018, but had a precipitous drop to No. 11 last season. The Bulldogs gave up at least 400 yards 6 times in 2019, including at least 500 yards to Auburn, Alabama and Louisville.

Personnel: Better

Key losses: DBs Cameron Dantzler, Maurice Smitherman, Brian Cole, Jaquarius Landrews; LBs Leo Lewis, Tim Washington; DLs Lee Autry, Kendell Jones, Fletcher Adams, Fabien Lovett

Key returnees: DBs Marcus Murphy, C.J. Morgan, Shawn Preston Jr., Fred Peters, Martin Emerson Jr., Tyler Williams; LBs Erroll Thompson, Nathaniel Watson, Aaron Brule; DLs Kobe Jones, Nathan Pickering, Marquiss Spencer

Pressuring QB: Better

With 26 sacks in 2019, MSU was 10th in the SEC. Chauncey Rivers is gone, but the Bulldogs return Kobe Jones and Nathan Pickering, who combined for 7.

Pickering emerged as an All-SEC Freshman, and he joins fellow tackle Jaden Crumedy and veteran ends Jones and Marquiss Spencer to give the Bulldogs the makings of a solid front.

On paper last year, Pickering had just 9 tackles in 8 games, but his impact was bigger. He played sparingly until the middle of the season when his reps began increasing alongside Fabien Lovett and Crumedy. Because DT Lee Autry was suspended for 8 games, Pickering got additional chances and delivered 5.5 tackles for loss and 3 sacks.

Run defense: Better

Erroll Thompson is one of the best linebackers in the country, and had a career-high in 2019 with 84 tackles, including 38 solo. His leadership is needed because there is plenty of turnover around him, as 4 of the top 6 tacklers from last season are gone.
Reinforcements to work alongside Thompson include a slew of JUCO transfers, including Jordan Davis and Tyrus Wheat of Copiah-Lincoln Community College and Tre Lawson of Gulf Coast Community College. All are listed as LB/DE.

When he was introduced, Arnett said a good barometer of a defense is how it handles the run.

“Typically, a good indicator of physical defense is how they hold up against the run…,” he said. “SEC is as good of football as there is in the country, all the guys on the roster know that, that’s why they came to school here, I don’t think there’s anyone shying away from the challenge. They are excited to get this thing going and see how good we can be.”

Pass defense: Better

The Bulldogs were 13th in the SEC in passing defense in 2019, and in 4 games, all losses, they gave up at least 300 yards. With the front having a decent amount of experience, with Thompson, as the backbone, the secondary has a lot of pressure to hold the line. That starts with Marcus Murphy and Martin Emerson. Jarrian Jones left the secondary to transfer to Florida State, so look for Tyler Williams and Emerson to emerge as the cornerbacks. Williams and Emerson each had 5 starts in 2019.

Along with Murphy, C.J. Morgan and Fred Peters return with Collin Duncan, Shawn Preston, Landon Guidry and J.P. Purvis to fill the 3 safety spots. Morgan, however, had a serious knee injury suffered late in 2019.

The secondary’s performance could very well make or break the Mississippi State defense. Last season, the Bulldogs surrendered 246.8 passing yards per game and 22 TD passes. Only Vandy, South Carolina and Arkansas allowed more points through the air. (The 2018 Bulldogs led the SEC, allowing only 8 TD passes.)

Special teams: Better

The Bulldogs return punter Tucker Day, who averaged 42.6 yards per punt last season, which was 9th among qualifiers in the SEC. Day’s background of playing hockey and soccer growing up in the Nashville area has helped his punting development. Day, who has briefly spent time as a field goal kicker, was named to the ESPN All-Bowl team at the end of the 2018 season for averaging 50.4 yards on 5 punts in the Outback Bowl.

Overall: Better

This unit has the potential to be pretty solid largely because of the leadership and experience of Thompson, but the Bulldogs also have several other experienced returnees. The biggest question is the growing pain transition to a new coordinator, and most important, a new scheme. Without a spring practice acclimation period, the Bulldogs have to race against time in order to digest Arnett’s scheme and philosophy.
Former MSU DC Bob Shoop largely used a 4-2-5 alignment, as he inserted an additional defensive back instead of a linebacker. Arnett’s comments about stopping the run perhaps illuminate his priority about having more personnel near the line of scrimmage. Last year, San Diego State was No. 2 in rushing yards allowed per game, while Mississippi State ranked No. 60 under Shoop.

This isn’t the first time MSU has used a 3-3-5 formation. It also deployed it under former defensive coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, who was the DC from 1996-02. Dunn is often credited with inventing the scheme, and is believed to have debuted it in with Memphis an upset win against Southern Cal in 1991 because it was a way around lining up in a traditional sense and going head to head with a more talented roster. Former Texas and Louisville coach Charlie Strong also used the alignment as a DC at South Carolina in 2000.