The most important hire that new Tennessee Vols head coach Josh Heupel will make in the coming days/weeks is his defensive coordinator hire.
Heupel is an offensive guy. He spends most of his time on that side of the ball. So he need a defensive coordinator that can essentially be the CEO of the defense. Heupel’s success at Tennessee absolutely rides on this hire.
So far, there have been absolutely no leaks when it comes who Heupel is considering hiring. It’s so locked down, in fact, that I’ve had SEC assistants reach out to me to see if I’ve heard anything (usually it’s the other way around). If UT athletic director Danny White is trying to limit leaks, he’s succeeding so far.
While we don’t know who Heupel is considering, we at least know who he should be considering.
The popular opinion is that Kevin Steele, who was hired by Tennessee shortly before Jeremy Pruitt was fired, should be the Vols’ defensive coordinator. I think that would be a solid hire by Heupel. Steele is obviously well-versed in the SEC. And he has great recruiting connections. But for now, I’m leaning toward Steele not being the guy. I’m not saying he’s out, but it feels like this hire is trending in a different direction.
The guy I think Heupel should try to hire is Mississippi State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett.
Arnett, who runs a 3-3-5 base defense, is someone who’s considered a “rising star” in the sport.
The New Mexico native was an assistant at San Diego State from 2011-2019 (he was the defensive coordinator for his final two years there). Arnett was hired by Syracuse last winter, but his time on staff there was short as Mike Leach quickly poached him for his inaugural staff at Mississippi State.
In Arnett’s first year as the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator, he helped the Mississippi State defense improve from No. 10 in the SEC in total defense to No. 5. He was also nominated as a Broyles Award finalist this year.
Not a bad resume for Arnett. But those aren’t the main reasons I think he’d be a great fit at Tennessee.
Heupel runs an up-tempo offense that often doesn’t give the defense much of a break. Being a defensive coordinator for Heupel isn’t for everyone.
Arnett, however, is well suited for this role after working for Mike Leach in 2020 (Leach was a mentor to Heupel and runs a similar offense).
On Tuesday morning, during an interview on the Bo Bounds show in Mississippi, Arnett pointed out that he enjoys working for Leach because he has complete autonomy on the defensive side of the ball.
Arnett also noted that he thinks going up against Leach’s high-powered offense on a daily basis makes his defense better. This is a stark contrast to what former Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said about going up against Heupel’s offense (Walters felt the Heupel offense didn’t do a good job of preparing Missouri’s defense).
It’s important that Heupel finds the right fit. He can hire a defensive coordinator with a great resume, but if the defensive philosophy doesn’t mesh with the offensive philosophy, it will fail (remember the Bob Shoop disaster at Tennessee).
Arnett, who has interviewed at LSU, Oregon, and Texas this offseason, is a perfect fit for Tennessee’s new staff. Heupel should be doing everything he can to get the 34-year-old defensive coordinator to Rocky Top.
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