In addition to regular coverage of Washington Huskies football, I’d also like to bring you stories and conversations about other Pac-12 schools. Today, we take a look at the person who will call plays for Washington State’s offense in 2023: Ben Arbuckle, a native of Canadian, Texas, who, at age 27, is the youngest coordinator in the conference — and oversaw an offense at Western Kentucky last season that averaged 36.4 points per game and 6.7 yards per play, both top-15 nationally.
Washington State’s new offensive coordinator studied finance and economics at West Texas A&M, a Division II school where he also played quarterback. His first job out of college was at an oil and gas company. He hated it so much that he quit after a few months to become a quality control assistant at Houston Baptist, connected to then-offensive coordinator Zach Kittley by a mutual acquaintance.
That was in 2018.
Two years later, Ben Arbuckle was the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Seminole High School in Texas.
Two years after that, Arbuckle was calling plays for one of the top passing offenses in the country, and helping Western Kentucky quarterback Austin Reed become the answer to the trivia question: who was the only FBS quarterback with more total passing yards in 2022 than Michael Penix Jr.?¹
When WSU coach Jake Dickert hired Arbuckle, 27, in December, he was believed to be the youngest primary offensive coordinator in the Power 5. Arbuckle replaces Eric Morris, who left after one season to become head coach at North Texas. Like Morris, Arbuckle favors a version of the Air Raid offense, though their systems are different in certain ways.
I’ve been curious about Arbuckle’s background, offensive philosophy and rapid ascent to his current position. I caught up with him for a conversation about small-town living, his coaching influences, Cam Ward’s progression, WSU’s spring practices and what to expect from the Cougars’ offense this season.
Questions and responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
What’s the most important thing for people to know about Canadian, Texas?
There’s a few things. My hometown dominates small-school football in the state of Texas. That’s one. You’re either a cattle rancher, work in the oil field, or you work for the school district.
What did your parents do?
My dad worked in the oil field, and my mother was the high school counselor.
What was it that set you on the path to becoming a coach?
I’ve always admired the coaches that I had, whether it was in high school or college. Probably the biggest one was my head football coach from high school. His name was Chris Koetting. He actually just retired about a month ago. I know high-school and college coaching isn’t exactly the same, but how you can treat people and the impact you can have on kids’ lives I think translates really, really well. It didn’t matter who you were, he treated everyone with the same amount of respect. I always thought that was really, really cool. He was always there whenever I needed him. Just the impact he had on me daily always made me interested in coaching.
How did you get connected with Houston Baptist?
I was working my job there in Houston for an oil and gas company, and I had a buddy who was a GA at Arkansas State at the time. He’s actually the new safeties coach at Utah State, Ethan Morris. He said, “hey, there’s an unpaid job at Houston Baptist. I know you hate your job. You might look into it.” I looked up HBU, saw who their new offensive coordinator was. Kittley’s not a very common last name. I had a coach in high school, one of our position coaches. His name was Kolt Kittley. Turns out they’re first cousins. I sent Zach Kittley an email and called my old coach, and within 15 minutes of sending that email, Coach Kittley called me, and within that five-minute conversation, I was the new offensive quality-control coach at Houston Baptist.
What did you take away from your two years there?
The knowledge of football, of course, increased drastically. Coach Kittley’s one of the smartest, most innovative coaches I’ve ever been around. But the thing I learned most is that you can be a good person and be in this industry. You can always let people know that you value them, and you cherish their relationship, and those guys are going to work incredibly hard for you. I know I did every day for Coach Kittley. He made me feel every single day like I was important. It’s stuff like that that I don’t think gets talked about enough in this profession — how to treat people in order to get the most efficient work out of everyone.
What’s your favorite thing about calling plays?
Other than it’s really fun, my favorite thing about calling plays is that feeling whenever a play that you saw, that you thought would work on film from game planning, that you’ve repped all week in practice, that the guys mastered so well that it became second nature to them — is seeing that play get called live in a game and it comes into fruition. And watching a big, explosive play or a touchdown happen, and watching the kids get so excited, because all that hard work paid off. And the chess match back and forth between coaching staffs is fun.
What were your takeaways from the 2022 season at Western Kentucky?
A big year of growth for me. It was my first year ever calling plays. I had a really, really good boss, Coach (Tyson) Helton. He trusted me and let me run with it. He let me make the offense what I wanted to make it, and he believed in me the whole way. The takeaways were, one, we had a great group of kids. They were talented, sure, but they were a great group of kids that came to work every day. They’re the reason everything was awesome. Between them and the staff, it made me feel like I was in Year 5, with how smooth everything was. My assistant coaches were unbelievable workers and got the most out of the kids. I thought it was extremely efficient and extremely productive just because of those two things.
What were your early conversations like with Jake Dickert?
The first time they expressed interest was two days before our bowl game. I was sitting at breakfast and Coach Dickert called me. Looking back, this might not have been the best thing to say, but I was like, “hey Coach, I’m interested, but I’ve got a bowl game here in two days, and I’m trying to win. Can we pick this conversation up after?” Coach Dickert, being the awesome dude he is, he’s like, “absolutely, man, go get it done.” We had a really, really good bowl game, then me and Coach Dickert, we set up a Zoom. After that Zoom, he offered me the job. It was a no-brainer to take it.
It definitely is Air Raid-ish. I run Air Raid principles a lot in the pass game. But I think I’m very multiple in my personnels and my formations, and how I utilize motion, too, which I think makes it tough to defend. That’s just in the pass game. In the run game, I think we’re very … I don’t know if pro-style is the best word, but that’s the best word I can come up with. Between how we use the tight ends and how we love to run the ball downhill, I think it’s a beautiful conglomerate. You put those two together, and I think you get a really productive thing on the field.
Photo courtesy of WSU Athletics.
Were you able to identify a few key players this spring who are going to touch the ball a lot this season?
The first two who come to mind, as far as guys who are going to be asked to do a lot and have the ball in their hands, are Nakia Watson and Jaylen Jenkins, our two go-to guys at running back. They’re going to be asked to do a lot of things. I liked where those guys were at. I thought they both had really good springs.
When you talk about receiver, some of those new guys really stood out, whether it be a Josh Kelly or DT Sheffield. And a true, true freshman who hadn’t even graduated high school yet, Carlos Hernandez. I think he’s going to be a special ballplayer for us. And some of the guys who were already here — Lincoln Victor showed up every single day. Made big plays, explosive plays, every single day. I loved where he was at from a mental standpoint, a leadership standpoint, and his play backed it up. Orion Peters had a really good first four or five days of practice. I liked where he was going, then he had a little injury that sidelined him. I’m really, really excited about him.
Someone I thought grew a lot was Tsion Nunnally. Bigger body who had a little bit of a role last year but not a big one. I thought he did some really good things this spring that I needed to see from him.
Up front, our fearless leader, Konner Gomness. He does everything right. He’s a smart guy, a great leader for us. Fa’alili Fa’amoe, that dude is a freakshow. He cleaned up his technique a lot.
The offensive line I thought had massive strides. We’re still kind of in that process of trying to find our best five. We’ve got seven or eight guys we feel really, really good about. It’s just trying to piece together who that best starting five will be. But I think as a whole, those guys have taken leaps forward in their pass protection and their IDs in the run game. As an offensive lineman, if you just know where to go, that’s 80 percent of the battle.
Tight end, I thought Cooper Mathers and Andre Dollar really, really rose their level of play, which they needed to do. And they accomplished that. Super happy with those guys.
Based on this spring and what you’ve watched from last season, are there a couple things you’d like to see Cam Ward improve on?
It’s no secret what makes Cam super special. It’s his ability to create plays on the run. You always feel like you’ve got a great chance with Cam Ward in the game, that if a play goes south, he’ll make it go north for you. But it’s trying to get him out of those situations where it can go south. Trying to eliminate those before they happen. Staying in the pocket more, cleaning up his footwork a little bit, making him understand the game at a higher level. I’d be lying to you if I said Cam did not get better at all three of those things this spring. Again, his willingness to learn and willingness to get better is what really helped him. He was awesome.
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What’s the biggest challenge in implementing a new offensive system?
The biggest thing is just getting the trust of the guys. Ultimately, they’re going to do what you say a lot of the time, just because you are their coach. But they don’t really start developing and getting better until they trust you, until they know you care about them. Every player is trying to earn my respect and my trust, but I’m trying to earn theirs way more than they’re trying to earn mine. I’m trying to let them know that I do care about them — that I care about them as a player, but I care about them more as a person. Once they know that’s true, their level of play just skyrockets.
That’s always the biggest, biggest challenge. Personnel is what it is. I’m going to find a way to have a collection of our best 11 players on the field at the same time, and do things that make them successful. The challenge is more on the mental side of everything — just trying to get those guys to trust me and have faith that what I’m trying to do for them will put them in the best situations.
Would you have ever thought you’d be a Power 5 coordinator at age 27?
I mean, no. Not that I’ve ever not believed in myself or thought I could do it, but it doesn’t happen a lot. Really, it’s a testament to the mentors I’ve had, and the chances they’ve taken on me. Coach Kittley didn’t have to take me to WKU with him to help him out. And when he left, Coach Helton didn’t have to give a 26-year-old the OC title and run an offense. Coach Dickert didn’t have to hire a 27-year-old as an offensive coordinator. He didn’t have to do that. It just speaks to the kind of men they are, that they’re willing to take a chance on me.
The best advice I ever got was from Bryan Ellis, the offensive coordinator at Georgia Southern. He said, “make a decision, and make it right.” Well, all those guys made a decision, and it’s my job to make it right. That’s what I go into every single day: these guys took a chance on me, (so) I’m going to make them look like the smartest guys on the planet.
I could see how your age could be a challenge, and also how it could be an asset. How do you look at that?
I don’t think there’s a whole lot of challenges to it. I’m doing a job that 120 other dudes are doing. Are there challenges that come forward? Yeah, sure. But I think the biggest asset that can come from it is how much I can relate to the players. How much I can let them know, “hey, I understand what you’re going through, because I was going through it six years ago.” I think I have a leg up in the game just because I can relate to those guys, I’m personable with those guys. I think it could definitely be a massive asset.
Who would you say are your biggest coaching influences, purely from a schematic standpoint?
The first one is definitely Zach Kittley at Texas Tech. He’s someone I chase every single day. He’s extremely sharp, extremely creative. His in-game play-calling is really something to marvel at when you’re on the headset with him. Some other guys I’ve watched from afar that maybe I don’t have a relationship with but really respect — Lincoln Riley at USC. I think he’s extremely creative. He puts his guys in unbelievable positions to be successful. He’s someone I enjoy watching every single week.
Another one I mentioned earlier is Bryan Ellis at Georgia Southern. I got to be around him at WKU. Being able to be around him and learn from him was awesome for me, and he does such a great job. Those are the big three I probably pay the most attention to. From afar, another one is Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss. I think what they do on offense is awesome and extremely productive. So just trying to find ways to kind of incorporate what they do into what I do.
From reading spring practice reports, it sounds like you really like to push the ball down the field. How important is the vertical passing game to you?
I’m a big believer that if you just throw the ball deep, good things happen. More good things can happen for the offense than they can the defense. Everyone’s like, “oh, they could intercept the ball.” OK. Interceptions are actually pretty rare in college football. They don’t happen just that often. If you look at it, the offense is either going to get a catch, or they’re going to get a 15-yard penalty because of defensive pass interference or holding or something. The best thing a defense can do is force an incomplete pass, and hey, an incomplete pass, it is what it is. It’s not the end of the world for me. The defense has to line up and defend us the next play.
What’s your favorite thing about Pullman so far?
My favorite thing is, this area and this region is all Cougs, all the time. God almighty, do they love the Cougs here. Which is so awesome, because I’ve never really, really experienced it. WKU had some unbelievable fans. They really, really did. But here is just a whole other level. I think just getting to one, be a part of it, but sit back and also admire the love the fans for this university have, is super incredible. I’m from a small town, so small-town vibes with big-time football? Sign me up, man. I’ll do it all day, every day.
— Christian Caple, On Montlake