PULLMAN – Ben Arbuckle’s life changed in the dining room of a New Orleans hotel. Before the sun had a chance to rise, signaling the arrival of Western Kentucky’s game day against South Alabama in the New Orleans Bowl last December, the Hilltoppers’ offensive coordinator saw his phone ring.
Arbuckle didn’t recognize the number. He definitely didn’t recognize the area code, 307. Arbuckle figured it was spam.
Then, by some stroke of luck , Arbuckle remembered a lesson he learned from one of his coaching mentors, Zach Kittley.
Always answer the phone, Kittley told Arbuckle when they coached together at Houston Baptist and Western Kentucky. You never know who it’ll be.
So Arbuckle paused his breakfast to answer the phone. On the other end was a man named Jake Dickert.
That Arbuckle finds himself as Washington State’s new offensive coordinator might register as against conventional wisdom. He’s 27, not much older than the eldest players on the team, and he’s working his first Power Five job. He had no big connection, no record-shattering playing career, and relative to most other coaching ascensions, Arbuckle has skipped many steps.
“Take a peek at the quarterback room and the vibe that goes on there,” WSU associate head coach and running backs coach Mark Atuaia said. “It’s not Cam (Ward). It’s him. ‘Buck’ is the one that runs that deal.”
For Arbuckle, that’s where all the magic lies. His genius is in his youth, his willingness to be aggressive in his playcalling, his ability to relate to players on levels older guys just can’t. He admits to scrolling on TikTok. Some coaches try to fake their trend savvy. Others play it up as a joke. Arbuckle comes across it naturally.
“I think that’s the biggest thing that today’s football has taught, is that age doesn’t matter as much. It doesn’t,” Dickert said. “You see his ingenuity. You see his creativity. You feel his energy out here at practice, which I think is important. I think guys really relate to him. It’s about how he goes about his business that I’ve been really impressed with.”
“Wasn’t too long ago that I was a player myself,” Arbuckle said, reflecting on his time playing quarterback at West Texas A&M. “I wasn’t a very good player. But I was a player and I understand what they’re going through, the time commitment that they have. I always just try to make this experience for them as enjoyable as possible.”
Arbuckle picked a trying time to become the Cougars’ head offensive coach. The big umbrella hanging over this WSU season is the finality of the Pac-12 Conference, of course, and the Cougars’ uncertain place in all this. Zoom in closer, though, and you understand the challenge Arbuckle faces.
He has a talented quarterback, Cameron Ward, and a senior receiver, Lincoln Victor. Around those guys, though, are players who haven’t been in Pullman much longer than Arbuckle – transfer receivers DT Sheffield and Josh Kelly, Kyle Williams and Isaiah Hamilton, plus true freshman Carlos Hernandez.
What Arbuckle gets out of those guys might determine how far the Cougars go this fall. How do all these new pieces mesh? How does Arbuckle earn their trust? How does he convince them that a 20-something-year-old knows what he’s talking about?
For that, the Cougars might check Arbuckle’s resume. He spent two years with WKU, the first as an offensive quality control coach, the second as the Hilltoppers’ offensive coordinator. Last season, Arbuckle’s offense finished sixth nationally in total offense (497 yards per game) and 15th in scoring (36 points per game). WKU quarterback Austin Reed led the nation in passing yards (4,746) and finished third in passing touchdowns (40).
The Hilltoppers also didn’t just trounce South Alabama in their New Orleans Bowl victory. They racked up 677 yards of total offense, including 522 through the air, a record for that bowl. That helped Reed finish second nationally in passing (339 ypg) and fourth in total offense (355 ypg). The man behind the controls was Arbuckle.
Although few might think of hiring a 27-year-old whose biggest experience was one year at a Group of Five, it made sense from the Cougars’ approach. They’re all but synonymous with the Air Raid offense. Dickert didn’t want to change that. When he lost his previous OC, Eric Morris, he put together a list of six to eight candidates who fit the bill.
“And every step of the way,” Dickert said, “the more I really went through the film and looked at it from my defensive lens, how creative he was, how hard he was to prepare for, how each week was like a new offense and a new challenge. Yet they were really just efficient, didn’t hurt themselves. You saw some toughness on tape and really good quarterback play.
“So it just kept leaning toward Ben. And then the fit personally with him and his family – a small-town, Texas guy. Understands what it’s like, loves Pullman. He just fits us in who we are. Just really happy to have him here.”
That’s where Arbuckle’s background and Washington State’s history dovetail. Arbuckle hails from Canadian, Texas, a tiny town in the state’s panhandle with a population hovering around 2,500 in the past decade. By the time May 2014 arrived and Arbuckle graduated from Canadian High, he had racked up more than 7,500 passing yards over his junior and senior seasons with the Wildcats.
Googling most towns will provide a TripAdvisor link: “Top 10 things to do in _____.” In Googling Canadian, the TripAdvisor link displays five things to do. The nearest Walmart is a 47-minute drive. The closest McDonald’s is a 45-minute drive. There’s plenty of rich history in Canadian, including an old movie theater that guests rave about, but Arbuckle’s home is a small town in just about every sense.
As for how Arbuckle went from Canadian to Pullman in five short years, his office provides a hint.
Arbuckle’s office is on the fifth floor of the Cougar Football Complex, nestled in the back of the hallway, past a row of other coaches’ rooms – more like a home to a graduate assistant, not the man in charge of the team’s offense.
The room includes a giant white board on the wall. Arbuckle has used a green marker to draw up multiple plays. Behind his desk, an L-shaped wood arrangement, he can lean back in his black chair, pick up a small remote and point it at the white board. That illuminates a laser pointer he uses to illustrate different parts of his ideas.
Arbuckle isn’t quite willing to disclose details on the plays he’ll call Saturday, when Washington State kicks off its season with a road matchup with Colorado State, but he’ll explain just about everything else. What’s an X receiver? A Y receiver? And what’s the difference between a play and a concept?
Arbuckle understands offense and it comes across in his verbiage, in his body language, in the way he can make the minutiae of offense seem like basic addition
“He knows how to talk. He knows what I like to do on the field,” Ward said. “We see eye-to-eye.”
“I think the dynamic that he brings to our offense is a really unique one,” WSU tight end Billy Riviere III said. “I think that he has a real close personal relationship with every player. But I think when we’re out here practicing, and we need to be serious, we have a lot of respect for him. I think he’s a genius when it comes to scheming up plays and whatnot. So I think he’s done a great job of creating that family relationship within our offense, but also keeping it at a serious level when we need to.”
Not every WSU tight end might have spoken so glowingly of their offensive coordinator in previous years. Last season, when Riviere hauled in a pass during the Cougars’ win over Wisconsin, he became the first WSU tight end to do so in 11 years.
Arbuckle is ready to change that. He wants to incorporate tight ends into the passing attack. On the Cougars’ first depth chart of the season, they aren’t even listed as tight ends. They’re listed as Y receivers.
At the top is Cooper Mathers, a junior. He played linebacker during his freshman and sophomore years. When he heard Arbuckle was set to become WSU’s new offensive coordinator and tight ends would be a bigger part of the team’s passing attack, he was ready to make a change.
“Very excited, very excited when I heard Coach Arbuckle was coming,” Mathers said.
“Going out there every day and showing Coach Arbuckle and the rest of the staff what we can do,” fellow tight end Andre Dollar added, “is definitely boosting our confidence and boosting the trust.”
Arbuckle has their trust. If he can parlay that into another breakfast at a hotel dining room this winter, this time as a Cougar, he might have much more.