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Potential Candidates to Become Penn State's Next Defensive Coordinator

James Franklin has a chance to demonstrate Penn State's 'renewed commitment' to the football program.

Penn State coach James Franklin has refreshed his offense several times over eight seasons, but the defense largely has remained consistent. That will change, as veteran coordinator Brent Pry has left to become head coach at Virginia Tech.

Franklin has had only two defensive coordinators at Penn State: Bob Shoop and Pry, both of whom he brought from Vanderbilt. Franklin promoted Pry in 2016 after Shoop left, keeping the flow of defensive strategy rather seamless.

Now, however, Franklin has the opportunity to shake up the defense and test Penn State's "renewed commitment" to the football program. Will Penn State invest in a high-profile, high-priced coordinator and enter college football's high-rent assistants’ market? Or will it take a more reserved approach after giving Franklin a big new, 10-year contract?

With that in mind, here's a look at some prospects for Penn State's defensive coordinator position.

Elijah Robinson: The Texas A&M defensive line coach is a rising star in defensive circles and cut his teeth at Penn State. The former Penn State lineman briefly coached that position with the Lions in 2011, then served as Bill O'Brien's director of player development for two seasons. He worked with Matt Rhule at Temple and Baylor and joined Texas A&M's staff in 2018.

Sean Spencer: Penn State's former defensive line coach is a first-rate recruiter and developer of talent. He has a breadth of experience, having spent the past two seasons of his 21-year coaching career with the New York Giants. He's also immensely respected in State College. In 2018, Franklin transferred the title of associate head coach from Pry to Spencer as a way to increase Spencer's pay and responsibility. In fact, Pry might want to bring Spencer to Blacksburg.

Derek Mason: The head coach who followed Franklin at Vanderbilt, Mason spent this past season as the defensive coordinator at Auburn. The Tigers rank fifth in the SEC in scoring defense and held Alabama without a touchdown until the final minute of regulation. "Derek is one of the most respected defensive coordinators in all of college football," Franklin said before Penn State played Auburn in September.

Derek Mason, the defensive coordinator at Auburn, replaced James Franklin as Vanderbilt's head coach in 2014. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser)

Derek Mason, the defensive coordinator at Auburn, replaced James Franklin as Vanderbilt's head coach in 2014. (Jake Crandall/The Montgomery Advertiser)

Anthony Poindexter: A potential in-house choice, Poindexter shined in his first season as Penn State's safeties coach, guiding Jaquan Brisker and Ji'Ayir Brown to exceptional seasons. He also was named Penn State's co-coordinator, a title he held at Purdue, and was Connecticut's defensive coordinator for three seasons.

Update: Poindexter is considered a candidate to be Virginia's next head coach. Poindexter, who played at Virginia, is scheduled to be inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in December.

Chris Partridge: Having just completed his second season as Mississippi's co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach, Partridge recently has been named as a potential candidate for some head-coaching jobs (including Temple's). Franklin is familiar with Partridge, who was on Michigan's staff from 2016-19. Further, the Lafayette College graduate knows regional recruiting, having been the head coach at Paramus Catholic from 2010-14.

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Todd Orlando: USC's defensive coordinator is a Pittsburgh native looking for a new job after Lincoln Riley's hiring. Orlando's resume reads like an East Coaster working his way across the country: UConn to Florida International to Utah State to Houston to Texas to USC. He might be worth a check-in.

Marcus Freeman: Aim high. Notre Dame's defensive coordinator sits atop the market, with his former boss reportedly pitching a big offer at LSU.

Of course, Freeman will be a contender to replace Kelly at Notre Dame and could have his choice among a handful of desirable jobs. But if Franklin is serious about Penn State becoming a serious coaching destination, Freeman should be on the call sheet. His defense improved over the season, ranks 11th nationally in points allowed and held Cincinnati to a season-low 24 points. Notre Dame allowed a total of 23 points in its last four games.

Update: Freeman was named Notre Dame's head coach Dec. 3.

Jim Knowles: Oklahoma State's defensive coordinator could have his choice of jobs, should he want to leave Stillwater. So for Penn State, this hire could be another test case of that "renewed commitment" to the program. Knowles is a Broyles Award finalist who guides the Big 12's leader in scoring defense (16.4 ppg) and total defense (281.4 ypg). The Philadelphia native is a coaching veteran who started his career at Cornell in the late 1980s, spent eight seasons at Duke and has been at Oklahoma State the past four.

Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach. (Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman)

Oklahoma State defensive coordinator Jim Knowles is a finalist for the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach. (Bryan Terry/The Oklahoman)

Update: Ohio State hired Knowles as its defensive coordinator Dec. 7.

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