After two great seasons with the Nittany Lions, Penn State defensive coordinator Manny Diaz is (officially) off to Duke, where he was named the Blue Devils’ next head football coach. For Penn State, that means James Franklin will be looking for a new defensive coordinator. Given that the Diaz-to-Duke rumors had been brewing for a few days, it is likely that Franklin’s search is already underway. Who could be the next man in charge of Penn State’s defense? Let’s take a look.
Jim Leonhard (Illinois Analyst)
The Skinny: Ah, the golden boy for every college defensive coordinator opening. The proof is in the pudding with Jim Leonhard, who had standout defenses during his tenure at Wisconsin. The problem that would arise with the Penn State job is pretty simple: he runs a 3-4 defense. Switching to a 3-4 from a 4-3 is a rather drastic move, so while Leonhard is fantastic, I’m not sure Franklin would be onboard for the potential bumps that would come with that switch.
Joe Harasymiak (Rutgers DC)
The Skinny: Originally from Ridgefield, NJ, Joe Harasymiak played his college ball at DIII Springfield College in Massachusetts. After his playing days, he stuck around New England, eventually becoming Maine’s head coach from 2016-2018. He left the Black Bears to work under PJ Fleck at Minnesota, working his way up from safeties coach to co-defensive coordinator in 2021. He spent the last two seasons at Rutgers as the DC, improving the Scarlet Knights defense from 95th in the country in PPG to 29th this season.
Tony Gibson (NC State DC)
The Skinny: I wrote about Tony Gibson when Brent Pry left, and will do the same this year. He had good defenses at West Virginia, and his time at NC State has been just as impressive. Since 2021, the Wolfpack have finished with the 2nd, 1st, and 5th best defenses in the ACC — all three of those seasons good enough for top 25 finishes nationally. Like Leonhard, he runs an odd man front with a 3-3-5 defense. Not as drastic a change as a 3-4 would be, but still a potential philosophical holdup.
Blake Baker (Missouri DC)
The Skinny: If Penn State wants someone that shares Manny Diaz’s philosophies, Blake Baker would make sense. He started as a GA under Diaz at Texas, and then followed him to Louisiana Tech and Miami, where he served as The U’s defensive coordinator for two seasons. Baker spent the last two seasons at Missouri, where he’s turned around the defense into a very respectable unit. The season prior to Baker’s arrival, the Tigers were No. 113 in the nation in PPG allowed. They improved to No. 56 in 2022 and No. 41 this past season.
Al Golden (Notre Dame DC)
The Skinny: Here’s the thing: Al Golden being a Penn State graduate shouldn’t impact your thoughts on him — and I say that for whatever side you land on. The sect that *just* likes him because he played for Joe Paterno is wrong. And the just-as-weird sect that roots against Al Golden (and Matt Rhule, as well) for bizarre reasons is also wrong. The Miami tenure was a disaster for Golden, but he went and coached linebackers in the NFL for four seasons and just finished his second season with the Fighting Irish as a top 10 defense. Maybe he’s not a candidate because he finished second in the head coaching search 10 years, but as a blind resume, Golden should be included in the discussion.
Tyler Santucci (Duke DC)
The Skinny: Probably a bit too young and unproven, but Tyler Santucci has been Mike Elko’s right hand man dating back to his early Wake Forest days. Even after Wake Forest, Santucci coached with Elko at Notre Dame, Texas A&M, and then finally Duke where he was the defensive coordinator this past season for a top 25 unit. I imagine the question is: how much was that Elko? He is originally from Western PA, so still a name to keep an eye on for future openings.
Zach Arnett (Former Mississippi State HC)
The Skinny: Prior to serving as head coach for the Bulldogs in 2023, Arnett did a nice job turning around Mississippi State’s defense from 2020-2023, with the Bulldogs making big improvements in areas like total defense and takeaways during his tenure. While Arnett lost a bit of his shine because of his struggles as a head man, he’s still viewed as one of the brighter defensive minds in the sport. But, like Gibson, he too runs a unique 3-3-5 formation.
Tom Allen (Former Indiana HC)
The Skinny: Speaking of blind resumes, I’ve seen some Penn State fans throw out Tom Allen as a preferred hire so I’d just like to highlight where his defenses finished in the Big Ten in PPG since his arrival at Indiana as the DC 2016: 9th (‘16), 10th (‘17), 10th (‘18), 9th (‘19), 4th (‘20), 14th (‘21), 14th (‘22), and 13th (‘23).
Jimmy Lake (LA Rams Assistant HC)
The Skinny: While his head coaching stint at Washington wasn’t much to write home about, no one can question Lake’s ability to head a defense. He consistently churned out great defenses at Washington, which was the main reason why he was given the head gig for the Huskies in the first place. The problem for Lake is just like we said about Leonard: he doesn’t run a 4-3 base defense. It’d be a big change.
Elijah Robinson (Syracuse DC)
The Skinny: For SEO and contractual reasons, I have to mention Elijah Robinson as an option. He’s no longer at Texas A&M as of this week, with him following fellow Camden-native Fran Brown to Syracuse to get his first crack at being a defensive coordinator. While the move to Syracuse won’t rule him (if Penn State wants him as DC, I imagine they will get him), I do think timing is a bit off this go around for where ERob is at and where the Penn State program is at.
D’Anton Lynn (USC DC)
The Skinny: Another Penn State alum, D’Anton Lynn would have been much more realistic about two weeks ago. Unfortunately, he left UCLA — where he completely revamped the defense — for USC last week, and is now making close to the $2 million mark. While Penn State’s salary shouldn’t be too far away from that for the right person — Andy Kotelnicki is, reportedly, making around $1.8M AAV — it’s not realistic to think Lynn makes the switch just days into his USC tenure.
Anthony Poindexter (Penn State Co-DC)
The Skinny: I’ll end where I think this search ends. Promoting from within isn’t always the right move, but I think in this case it might be. Poindexter has been a DC or co-DC since the 2014 season, with the last three coming here in Happy Valley. He’s learned under Brent Pry and Manny Diaz, and from all accounts, is extremely well-respected within the program. Captain Obvious, but I think Penn State has a really good thing going with the defense and keeping things essentially as the status quo might be best for all involved.