Potential Options In Penn State’s Search For New Defensive Coordinator

After working alongside James Franklin since 2011 and as an assistant coach for Penn State football since 2014, Brent Pry is officially Virginia Tech’s next head coach.

Pry began in Happy Valley by managing the linebackers and worked as co-defensive coordinator, but he was promoted to associate head coach and defensive coordinator following the 2015 season. Since then, the Altoona native has helped lead some dominant Penn State defenses, including a 2017 group that allowed just 15.5 points per game and a 2018 team that led the nation with 3.62 sacks per game.

This year, the Nittany Lions have allowed just 16.8 points per game, a mark that’s good for seventh-best in college football. Naturally, it’s safe to say Pry has left some big shoes to fill on the defensive side of the ball.

As Penn State likely begins considering its options, let’s take a look at some possible replacements for the Hokies’ new head coach.

Sean Spencer, New York Giants’ Defensive Line Coach

Who wouldn’t want to have Coach Chaos back in Happy Valley?

Spencer is another defensive coach Franklin knows well, as the pair go all the way back to 2011 at Vanderbilt. Spencer served as the defensive line coach for the Commodores and took the same job with the Nittany Lions in 2014. He was promoted to an associate head coach role for the 2018 and 2019 seasons before joining the Giants in January 2020.

The defensive line specialist was without a doubt a fan-favorite at Penn State and simply a flat-out great coach. The Nittany Lions recorded more than 40 sacks in five of Spencer’s six seasons on staff, and he helped mold stars such as Carl Nassib, Shareef Miller, and Yetur Gross-Matos, among others.

Even before he took his “Wild Dogs” moniker to Penn State, Spencer helped turnaround Vandy’s defense by making it a top 25 unit nationally in 2013. That same season, the Commodores record 42.5 tackles for loss.

Spencer is on the tail end of his second season in the NFL. Since Franklin loves to hire guys he knows well, he could have an opportunity to test what he’s learned at the professional level and apply it to an entire collegiate defense.

Anthony Poindexter, Penn State’s Co-Defensive Coordinator & Safeties Coach

Considering how much turnover the Nittany Lions have seen from different assistant coaching spots over the past few seasons, it wouldn’t be shocking if they decided to make an in-house hire.

Poindexter was hired as Penn State’s co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach this past February and has already impressed in his first year on the job. Safeties Jaquan Brisker and Ji’Ayir Brown have both been dominant over the course of this campaign and make up arguably the best position group on the Nittany Lions’ defense, while Poindexter also offers a wealth of experience as a defensive coach.

The former standout safety for UVA started his coaching career as a graduate assistant for the Cavaliers in 2003 and worked as a running backs coach for multiple years following that. Poindexter shifted to defensive backs in 2009 and made stops coaching on that side of the ball at UConn and Purdue before coming to Penn State.

Elijah Robinson, Texas A&M’s Defensive Line Coach

A former Penn State defensive tackle from Camden, N.J., Robinson is getting a ton of chatter surrounding the Nittany Lions’ defensive coordinator vacancy.

The 36-year old coach has played a part in making the Aggies’ defense one of the best in the nation. This year, Texas A&M is allowing just 15.92 points per game, a mark that’s good for fourth-best in the nation, and has already grabbed 39 total sacks.

Robinson has also impressed on the recruiting trail for the Aggies. The group currently has the No. 3 recruiting class of 2022 in the nation, which includes five-star defensive lineman Walter Nolen — the No. 2 overall prospect in the class. Robinson also earned a commitment from five-star defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal back in 2018, who’s currently projected as one of the top defensive linemen in this year’s NFL Draft.

After his Nittany Lion playing career was cut short due to a neck injury, Robinson served as a graduate assistant and helped as a defensive line coach for multiple seasons. He spent 10 years total at Penn State before managing the defensive line at Temple and Baylor alongside Matt Rhule.

Since arriving at College Station in 2018, Robinson has proved he can recruit and mold a talented defensive line. A promotion at his former school with an already talented defense could be a perfect fit for the young coach.

Derek Mason, Auburn Defensive Coordinator

While the pair haven’t coached together, James Franklin and Derek Mason have certainly crossed paths in the college football world. Mason was Franklin’s successor at Vanderbilt and spent eight seasons with the Commodores before he was fired following 2020’s 0-8 campaign.

The 52-year old coach has spent this past season as Auburn’s defensive coordinator and has helped lead the Tigers to allow just 22.17 points per game. The group struggled to a 6-6 record this year, but the defense put together a few memorable performances. Most recently, Auburn didn’t allow a touchdown to Alabama in the Iron Bowl until late in the fourth quarter.

Mason signed a two-year, $3 million contract earlier this year with the Tigers, so it may be a stretch to get him to jump ship for the same job in Happy Valley. However, he’d join a team that already has plenty of star players on defense and could help him bounce back from a tough finish at Vanderbilt.

Jim Knowles, Oklahoma State Defensive Coordinator

Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy has already said he’s “very, very certain” his defensive coordinator isn’t going anywhere, but the Broyles Award finalist is certainly a hot topic on the coaching carousel after a fantastic year with the Cowboys.

Knowles helped orchestrate an Oklahoma State defense that impressed in a Big 12 conference that’s known for anything but. The Cowboys paced the conference this season by allowing just 16.4 points and 281.4 yards per game, and currently boast an 11-1 mark on the year.

The Philadelphia native is rumored to be a target for the same job at Florida. However, a bit more stability and recent success in Happy Valley could make Penn State a more attractive option for Knowles.

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About the Author

Will Pegler

Will is a senior majoring in digital and print journalism and is an associate editor for Onward State. He is from Darien, Connecticut and is a lifelong Penn State football fan. He loves a good 80's comedy movie, Peaky Blinders, The Office, and the New York Yankees and Giants. You can catch some of his ridiculous sports takes on his Twitter @gritdude and yell at him on his email [email protected]

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