Mississippi State ended up winning 27-6, but the Bulldogs had just 333 yards. Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen was impressed by Diaz's Blue Raiders defense.
"After that game, I made sure I put his bio in my file," said Mullen, who just completed his first season. "I said, 'If anything ever happens, this guy is an interesting guy for us to keep track of because he does think outside the box.' "
A few months later, Mullen hired Diaz to run his defense after Carl Torbush left Starkville to become defensive coordinator at Kansas.
"It just sort of shows you that you never know when you're being evaluated," Diaz said.
Diaz didn't know Mullen before he was hired.
"He called me shortly after the New Year, just a few days before the [AFCA] convention [in Orlando]," Diaz said. "It was sort of an exploratory talk. And then we spoke [on a Monday] at the convention informally. It was gauging interest and getting to know each other a little bit.
"I then was in Starkville on Wednesday night, flew home Thursday morning and by Thursday night I told him that I was coming. It was quite a whirlwind."
Diaz, 35, takes over a defense that yielded less than 24 points just three times in 2009. Mississippi State ranked 10th in the SEC in total defense (366.0 ypg) and was in the bottom half of the SEC in rush defense, pass defense and scoring defense. There's also a need to generate more turnovers after the Bulldogs ranked 10th in the SEC in turnover margin.
What are Diaz's plans defensively?
"It's almost a joke that when every coach who gets a defensive job says he's going to attack," Diaz said. "But that's what we did at Middle. … We definitely want to be aggressive.
"We will base out of a four-man front, but we will have multiple looks with a three-man front. The best way to describe us would be multiple."
The potential for a solid defense looks to be there. The defense has some promising youngsters, including tackle Fletcher Cox, cornerback Corey Broomfield and free safety Johnthan Banks, who all earned some type of SEC all-freshman honors this past season.
My dad the mayor
If Manny Diaz had followed in his father's footsteps, he'd be in politics.
Manny Diaz Sr. was a two-term mayor of Miami, and he completed his final term in November. The elder Diaz, who left Cuba for the United States in 1961, is a lawyer who first was elected to office in Miami in 2001 and was re-elected in 2005.
He now is serving as a faculty fellow at Harvard, where he will teach this spring.
"What I wasn't aware of was the state of Mississippi and the talent in the state and the talent they were able to bring in with the first recruiting class," Diaz said. "There is a chance if we follow Dan's formula that we could get some outstanding personnel in here and do some things that haven't been done in a while."
Mississippi State long has been one of the SEC's have-nots. The Bulldogs have been to 13 bowls in their history, including just two since 2000. Conversely, SEC West rivals Alabama (57), LSU (41) and Auburn (34) are frequent postseason visitors.
Mullen was hired after the 2008 season following a successful run as offensive coordinator at Florida. Mississippi State finished 5-7 this past season, including a 3-5 mark in league play. But the season ended on an up note with a resounding 41-27 victory over Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.
Mullen is hands-on with a still-developing offense, and is banking on Diaz helping the defense take a big step. Mullen knows coordinating a successful Sun Belt Conference defense takes ingenuity, spunk and a big dose of what Mullen and Diaz call "thinking outside the box."
Mullen also hired Chris Wilson from Oklahoma to serve as co-defensive coordinator/defensive line coach, giving Mississippi State another fresh set of eyes and ideas. But it's Diaz who holds the key to the success of the defense.
In four seasons at Middle Tennessee State, Diaz's defenses led the Sun Belt in sacks and tackles for loss two times. And the units never ranked lower than third in either category during his stint in Murfreesboro.
"At Middle Tennessee, we were smaller than most teams, so we felt we were going to have to move a lot," said Diaz, who attended Florida State but didn't play football. "But then we found that as we got into it that we did it pretty well and enjoyed doing it because of what it did to the offenses we played. We wanted to be different.
"We wanted to be a nuisance to the people that we played."
Diaz's 2009 defense may have been his best, helping the program to a New Orleans Bowl victory over Southern Miss during a 10-3 season. Middle ranked second in the nation in tackles for loss (8.6 per game) and sixth in sacks (2.9 per game). It was all about being aggressive and making big plays.
"Manny did a great job," MTSU coach Rick Stockstill said. "We hate to lose him, but he has a bright future and we understand. He proved here he could build a strong defense."
Diaz cut his teeth as a graduate assistant at FSU from 1998-99, working with then-coordinator Mickey Andrews. Diaz moved on to N.C. State as a graduate assistant in 2000-01 before assuming a full-time spot as linebacker coach in Raleigh from 2002-03 under Chuck Amato. Diaz coached the Wolfpack safeties in 2004-05 before joining Stockstill's staff at Middle Tennessee State in '06.
"One of the things we want to do is create a defense that has our own identity," Mullen said. "We're going to take some of what Manny did at Middle Tennessee and what Chris did at Oklahoma. … We are going to lock ourselves away and kind of create a little bit of a new defense that I am going to have some input on as well.
"Hopefully, we come up with a new creative defense like we did with an offense a couple of years ago [at Florida]."