STATE COLLEGE – With Brent Pry’s departure earlier this week to become the head coach at Virginia Tech, Penn State and eighth-year coach James Franklin now shift their focus to finding a new defensive coordinator.
Besides being an integral member of Penn State’s coaching staff, Pry’s loss is one of significance as the Altoona native has been with Franklin since he was named the Nittany Lions head coach in 2014.
Under Pry’s defense over the past eight seasons, the Nittany Lions have mostly fielded one of the Big Ten’s toughest units. This year, Penn State’s defense during 12 regular-season games yielded 16.8 points per game, which ranks second-best among all defense in the Big Ten. It took Penn State’s opponents until the final game of the regular season to finally score a first-quarter touchdown.
Here are a few candidates for Penn State’s vacant defensive coordinator opening:
Sean Spencer, defensive line (New York Giants)
Like Pry, Spencer’s relationship with Franklin spans back to Franklin’s days as Vanderbilt’s head coach. This move would provide the easiest transition for both Spencer and Penn State.
Spencer coached the Nittany Lions’ defensive line for six seasons before his 2019 departure for the NFL. While at Penn State, he tutored current NFL players and former Nittany Lions Carl Nassib (Las Vegas Raiders) and Yetur Gross-Matos (Carolina Panthers).
In 2014, Spencer's first season in Happy Valley, Penn State’s defensive line ended the year No. 3 nationally in run defense and No. 2 nationally in total defense. The Nittany Lions led the FBS in sacks during the 2015 and 2018 seasons.
Spencer was also regarded as a strong recruiter during his tenure as Penn State’s defensive line coach.
Derek Mason, defensive coordinator (Auburn)
Mason succeeded Franklin when the latter left Vanderbilt to lead Penn State. Mason served as the Commodores' head coach from 2014-2020. He was fired following Vanderbilt’s final game of the 2020 season.
Mason was hired as Auburn’s defensive coordinator in January, his second time holding the title during his coaching career. Mason served as Stanford’s defensive coordinator for the 2012 and 2013 seasons after joining the program as a defensive backs coach in 2010. Mason also coached the defensive backs at Bucknell from 199-2001.
Auburn’s defense held opponents to 22.1 points per game during a 2021 regular season in which the Tigers went 6-6. Auburn’s defense held opponents to a 35.47 third-down conversion percentage.
Anthony Poindexter, safeties/co-defensive coordinator (Penn State)
If Franklin wants to remain in-house for Pry’s replacement, then Poindexter could have a realistic chance at a promotion. Poindexter just finished his first regular season as the Nittany Lions’ safeties coach/co-defensive coordinator.
Penn State’s secondary thrived under Poindexter's leadership during his inaugural season with the program. Jaquan Brisker received accolades as first-team All-Big Ten selection by coaches and media. Ji’Ayir Brown was named a third-team All-Big Ten selection by conference coaches, and he received a nod as an honorable mention selection by conference media members.
In elevating Poindexter to defensive coordinator, Penn State would have a proven strong recruiter for the mid-Atlantic region.
Poindexter starred at and coached at Virginia. Earlier this week it was announced he will be inducted as a class of 2022 member into the Virginia Sports Hall of Fame.
Elijah Robinson, defensive line (Texas A&M)
When Spencer left for the New York Giants in 2019, Robinson was linked to the opening. Robinson played at Penn State from 2004-2008 and joined the coaching staff as a graduate assistant in 2009. He remained in State College until 2014 when he joined Temple’s staff as defensive line coach.
Robinson just concluded his fourth regular season with the Aggies. Texas A&M this season ranks fourth in the SEC in sacks (39). Last season, the Aggies paced the SEC in total defense and ended the year ranked among the top three teams in the FBS in run defense.
Robinson hails from Camden, New Jersey.