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Penn State Football’s Next Defensive Line Coach: 15 Names to Know

by on February 01, 2020 12:00 PM

Where there was a wonderful feeling of Chaos for a decade for James Franklin, there is now a bit of chaos of another kind.

Who is going to replace Sean Spencer as Penn State’s defensive line coach?

Spencer, who spent all three seasons with CJF at Vanderbilt and was just embarking on Year 7 with Franklin at Penn State, is now with the New York Giants.

What’s next for Franklin, who is making his fourth hire since December 26? (Name tags and ice breakers may be appropriate for the first full staff meeting.)

Well, the seventh-year Penn State head coach has that binder of his. Plus, a head start.

Franklin knew this day was coming: The talented and gregarious Spencer has been in demand for a number of years, hence the associate head title tag that Franklin transferred from Brent Pry to Spence — with Pry’s blessing — in order to sweeten the pot to stay a few years ago.

On the short-term, Spencer interviewed with the Giants and their new head coach Joe Judge on Tuesday, so you have to figure that Franklin knew for a few days that it was quite possible that Sean Was Gone.

Then there’s that binder. Whether it is an actual bound collection of notes, bios, analytics and leads or an Excel spreadsheet that lies inside the laptop of Franklin aide-de-camp Michael Hazel, there’s no doubt that Franklin already has a ready list of potential candidates. 

Sean’s shoes are big ones to fill. Any elite team is strong, deep and consistent along both lines, and Franklin took steps in the offseason to shore up the offensive side of the ball in that regard. He can’t step backwards on defense when hiring a rare triple threat like Spencer — recruiter, developer, coaching loyalist.


So, who’s that list? We don’t know. But here are five places to look at to get a good idea at what is out there: 

1. Recent nominees for the Broyles Award, given annually to the nation’s top college football assistant. (LSU’s Joe Brody was the 2019 honoree, and Pry rightfully a perennial nominee.)

2. Frankin’s roots and connections — his and his staff’s. This would include: a.) previous places where they coached: Ju’Juan Seider worked with Gerad Parker at Marshall, then vouched for his hire at PSU. b.) Franklin’s connections to places like East Stroudsburg and Lackawanna Community College have paid dividends in signing players and getting help from former ESU player and New York Giants OL coach Pat Flaherty, a PSU consultant in 2019; and c.) Opposing coaches: Kirk Ciarrocca’s play-calling and scheming for Minnesota vs. Penn State in 2019 was a helluva job interview.

3. Former Nittany Lion players and coaches. 

4. Top sack schools. Penn State’s D is predicated on pressure from the defensive line, with sacks coming in bunches. It was a hallmark of Spencer’s Wild Dogs. We don’t see that changing; it has served Franklin and Pry, the defensive coordinator of the Nittany Lion defense, well. Joe Moorhead was hired, in part, because of the eye-popping and consistent numbers he put together at Fordham. 

5. Schools with a new or relatively new head coach, as change is usually inevitable. Two of Franklin’s hires in the past month have come this way:

New Penn State O-line coach Phil Trautwein was at Boston College, brought there by his old Florida coach Steve Addazio. But Addazio was fired and Jeff Hafley arrived from Ohio State as the new head coach. Hafley retained Trautwein, but the circumstances had changed. New PSU wide receivers coach Taylor Stubblefield came from Miami (Fla.), after one season with first-year head coach Manny Diaz in 2019. Stubblefield got the job due to his connection with the Hurricanes’ new O-coordinator, Dan Enos, and O-line coach, Butch Barry. All three had been at Central Michigan. After the 2019 season, Enos and Barry were fired; Stubblefield was not, but he opted out for Penn State — an upgrade, for sure.


There are some defensive coordinators on the list below (compiled, mostly, from the above criteria), and Pry is the defensive coordinator and fifth-year safeties coach Tim Banks also has the title of co-defensive coordinator. So don't expect any splashy big-name hires who are already DC's in the Power 5. However, Franklin still has the titles of run game coordinator and associate head coach to offer, as well as a lot of cash and the panache of the Penn State name.

Spencer was in his seventh season at PSU and with his title and success, plus VP of athletics Sandy Barbour’s repeated promise that Franklin’s assistants were well-paid, it would not be surprising if Spencer was closing in on seven figures annually.

(No current NFL assistants are included; Franklin has zero history of hiring from the professional ranks.)

Ben Albert, Co-DC/DL, Duke — New Jersey native. Knows the Penn State territory well: Coached at Rutgers, Temple, Boston College and UMass (where has also played). 

Inoke Breckterfield, DL, Wisconsin — Sixth year with the Badgers, coached at Pitt (where he mentored Aaron Donald) and UCLA. Played at Oregon State. Badgers had 3.64 sacks per game in 2019, fifth in the nation (and two spots ahead of Penn State). CJF has already snagged an assistant from the Big Ten West this offseason; why not a second?

Marcus Freeman, DC, Cincinnati (2019 Broyles nominee) — May be a DC, but PSU is a step up in stature and pay. LB is his strength, but his Big Ten roots (played at Ohio State, coached at Purdue) are strong.

Greg Gattuso, HC, Albany — Former Penn State DL and outsized personality. Now HC at Albany, where he was Colonial Athletic Association Coach of the Year in 2019. Has coached at Pitt, Maryland, Duquesne. Age 57, so PSU would be nice last stop.

Brick Haley, DL/AHC, Missouri (2018 Broyles nominee) — Coached with LSU, Texas, Chicago Bears. Retained and promoted to sr. associate head coach by new Mizzou HC Eli Drinkwitz. Aspirational hire.

Randall Joyner, DL, SMU — Young, former GA at Ohio State. SMU ranked No. 4 in sacks in 2019, at 3.71 per game.

Taiwo Onatolo, DE/ST, Buffalo and George RicumstrictDL, Buffalo — Franklin saw them up close and personal in 2019, when Buffalo held Penn State to 78 yards rushing, 2 of 9 on third down and owned a 10-7 halftime lead. UB players ranked 1-2-3 in the MAC in sacks.

Charlie Partridge, AHC/DL, Pitt — Talk about trolling a non-rival. (Hey, Franklin took Ciarrocca from his buddy, P.J.) Pitt ranked No. 1 in college football with 3.92 sacks per game in 2019. Also coached DL at Wisconsin, Arkansas. Was HC at Florida Atlantic (9-27). 

David Reeves, DC, Alabama-Birmingham (2018 Broyles nominee) — D-line roots, DC since 2016. In 2018, UAB had a school-record 48 sacks and 111 tackles for a loss. UAB No. 11 nationally in sacks in 2019, with 3.14 per game.

Elijah Robinson, DL, Texas A&M — Former Nittany Lion from New Jersey, was with Matt Rhule at Temple and Baylor before going to Texas A&M in 2018 to work for Jimbo and a jumbo paycheck. Won’t be cheap, but checks a lot of boxes. 

Randy Shannon, DC/LBs, Central Florida (2019 Broyles nominee and past winner) — Former Miami head coach brings savvy and Florida ties, ala Ja'Juan Seider. Coaches LBs, but could adapt: UCF DL Trysten Hill went in round 2 of 2019 NFL Draft. In 2019 UCF led the country in tackles for loss (9.3 per game) and allowed only 22.8 ppg. PSU could be one last big payday.

Vic So’to, DL, Virginia — Future star, young up-and-comer, ala Trautwein. Works in DMV. Starred at BYU, played in NFL. Second cousin of late Hall of famer Junior Seau. Virginia was No. 9 nationally in sacks in 2019. 

Walter Stewart, DL, Temple — Owls were No. 14 in sacks in 2019. In 2018, Stewart coached Northern Illinois DL, second in the country behind Clemson, with 50 sacks. Also coached back-to-back All-American defensive end Sutton Smith at NIU. Two-time captain on D-line at Cincinnati, where he played in Sugar and Orange Bowls. 

Todd Stroud, AHC/DL, Miami (Fla.) — Stubblefield and Seider know him. Miami was No. 6 in sacks in 2019. Knows Big Ten country: Was at Akron for seven seasons. In the 2006 NFL Draft, three of Stroud’s N.C. State D-linemen were first-round selections, including top overall pick Mario Williams by the Houston Texans.

Mike Poorman has covered Penn State football since 1979, and for since the 2009 season. His column appears on Mondays and Fridays. Follow him on Twitter at His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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