Mississippi State heads into the early signing period in a uniquely challenging situation.

The sudden death of head coach Mike Leach barely a week before Wednesday’s start to the early period left the entire Bulldogs community reeling.

The university moved swiftly to maintain continuity in the wake of Leach being stricken last Sunday, then passing away a day later to complications from a heart condition.

State named defensive coordinator Zach Arnett interim head coach as soon as Leach was hospitalized, then gave him a 4-year contract as head coach on Thursday.

The 1st indication of how well the Bulldogs have managed to make a smooth transition will come with the signing of high school prospects.

Leach and his staff had commitments from 22 players in a class that was ranked No. 28 nationally and 9th in the SEC by 247Sports.com.

Surely, the biggest challenge for Arnett and the rest of the staff has been to assure understandably shaken commitments that the Bulldogs program is still the best 1 for them even with the unexpected change at the top.

Here is a look at State’s recruiting class heading into the start of the early signing period:

Highest-rated player: Creed Whittemore, athlete, 4-star

Whittemore (5-11.5, 175) is a spread-option quarterback at F.W. Buchholz High School in Gainesville, Florida, which means he won’t be operating the Air Raid offense with the Bulldogs.

But he’s an intriguing prospect on the other end of the pitch-and-catch system that made Leach 1 of the most successful offensive coaches of his time. Whittemore has the athleticism, cutting ability and elusiveness to thrive as a wide receiver and perhaps as a return specialist.

It’s too early to know for sure what Arnett has in mind for his offense, but it’s a safe assumption that he’ll want to maintain the Air Raid, which will be in Will Rogers’ record-setting hands for another season.

But if Arnett and his yet-to-be-named offensive coordinator want to add some sort of Wildcat element to the scheme, Whittemore’s role could expand.

Did they bolster the QB room? (Yes)

They didn’t do it with Whittemore’s arrival, but the Bulldogs did when they landed 4-star prospect Chris Parson (6-0.5, 200), who spent his past 2 seasons at Class 6A Ravenwood in Brentwood, Tennessee, after spending his 1st 2 seasons at 2 different high schools in Texas.

Parson figures to spend his 1st season learning behind Rogers and Sawyer Robertson, who will be in his 3rd season in the program.

But he’s already shown leadership instincts by reaching out to his fellow commits and explaining how they can honor Leach by their careers as members of his final recruiting class.

Best position group: Offensive line

This group features the most commits (5) and matches the average number of stars (3) for any position group containing multiple commits.

The group doesn’t feature 1 standout, but tackles Joe Crocker (6-6, 310 pounds) of Franklin Road Academy in Nashville and Zay Alexander (6-7, 315) of Tupelo (Mississippi) High are tied as the No. 48 tackle in the country, leading a tightly bunch set of 3-star recruits.

Biggest need filled: Linebacker

The Bulldogs are losing 2 of their top defenders from the linebacker position — Nathaniel Watson, who led the team with 108 tackles, and Tyrus Wheat, who led the team with 6 sacks.

But they have 3 3-star commits at the position, which settles depth issues within a position group that will be led by veteran Jett Johnson.

Biggest potential flip: Creed Whittemore, athlete, 4-star

Whittemore is unlikely to flip, but he did commit to Florida previously before decommitting in October.

A promise to compete at quarterback elsewhere might be tempting, but Whittemore said he heard what he wanted to hear about Arnett’s vision when he spoke with the new head coach.

Final takeaways on this class

One State commitment doesn’t have any stars next to his name, but it’s not because of a lack of potential. It’s because he comes from Australia, which is generally outside the jurisdiction of star-givers. His name is Keelan Crimmins (6-3, 200) and he’s, not surprisingly, a punter …

As usual, the Bulldogs class is Mississippi-centric, but fully a half of the 22-member class does come from outside the Magnolia State. The other recruits come from 6 Southern states, ranging from Tennessee to Texas. …

The only position not featured in this class is tight end, which isn’t surprising since Leach generally didn’t use one.