Last week, Ed Orgeron rather boldly proclaimed his hiring intentions for his top spots on the defensive and offensive sides of the ball at LSU.
It worked for the offensive unit. Orgeron nailed down the play-calling services of former Carolina Panthers assistant Jake Peetz, who worked for former Tigers offensive whiz Joe Brady this past season at Carolina. LSU also added D.J. Mangas, an analyst on the Tigers’ undefeated 2019 staff who also spent this past season with the Panthers.
Orgeron nearly made it a clean-sweep of top candidates when he nearly secured the services of coveted defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman, then of Cincinnati, last Friday.
LSU made a big offer, Freeman was on the verge of formally accepting and then Notre Dame, with Brian Kelly at the helm, charged back into the picture with a more competitive offer. That move, plus an overall environment that better fit what Freeman sought, led to Freeman’s acceptance of Notre Dame’s defensive coordinator position.
So where does Orgeron now turn?
Multiple sources tell FootballScoop that LSU is prioritizing Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett, who is scheduled to be in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Tuesday to interview with Orgeron and Tigers’ officials for the defensive coordinator vacancy.
LSU’s replacing its play-callers on both sides of the ball following the firing of Bo Pelini as defensive coordinator after just one disastrous season and the move of Steve Ensminger into an off-the-field role from his post as offensive coordinator.
Yet Arnett, per sources with direct knowledge, also remains among the top candidates for the defensive coordinator position on Steve Sarkisian’s inaugural Texas Longhorns staff.
Tosh Lupoi also is in the mix in Austin, Texas; he’s been in the NFL with the Atlanta Falcons and Cleveland Browns in recent years, but Lupoi has deep ties to Sarkisian. Lupoi was on Sarkisian’s Washington staff as defensive line coach in Sarkisian’s final two years atop the Huskies program.
So, who is Arnett? Quietly one of college football’s young assistant coaches on a sharply ascending path after a playing career in the mid-2000s at New Mexico.
He’s a former linebacker who’s worked closely under his former head coach, Rocky Long. It’s perhaps then no surprise that Arnett’s immediate impact on Long’s San Diego State staff resulted in helping multiple linebackers earn all-conference honors.
In his two seasons leading the Aztecs defense, 2018-19, the unit ranked in the top-7 both years against the run, had the nation’s No. 3 scoring defense in ’19 and also during that two-year span engineered one of just six defenses to not yield a single 40-point game in either season.
In his first year at Mississippi State, Arnett helped the Bulldogs under first-year coach Mike Leach to a season-opening upset-win against defending CFP champion LSU and a season-ending bowl win against Tulsa. The Bulldogs’ defense had three players drafted from its outstanding ’19 squad that ranked among the nation’s best, and the program also battled significant COVID-19 issues during this past season that in multiple games forced the team to play below the SEC’s 53-man roster guidelines.
State’s defense ranked in the 50s in both total defense and scoring defense. Arnett last month agreed in principle to a contract extension with the MSU program after he earned a base salary of $600,000 in 2020, according to the USA Today Assistant Coaches’ Salary Database.
LSU had paid Pelini roughly $2.7 million per year on a three-year deal it gave Pelini a year ago before it reached a settlement with the former Nebraska head coach at the time Orgeron and the school parted with Pelini. The Tigers also had offered a package in the $2 million range to Freeman, per sources briefed on those negotiations.
As always, stay tuned to The Scoop for the latest coaching news.