Penn State football: Coaching staff turnover doesn't have to spell disaster
Who’s the best candidate to be Penn State’s next defensive coordinator? Quick answer: Probably someone you’ve never heard of. I mean, unless you’re the type that geeks out over this stuff.
If you knew the name Joe Moorhead before James Franklin brought him on board as offensive coordinator in 2016, then you tell me who’s coming to replace Brent Pry. Moorhead’s resume before his Penn State gig included stops at Fordham (4 years as head coach), Connecticut and Akron. Franklin saw something he thought could translate to the Big Ten, and only the most extreme cynic would argue that he didn’t nail that hire.
Now, Penn State’s 8th-year head coach needs to replace his right-hand man of the past 11 years. Pry, who leaves behind the 7th-best scoring defense in the nation, took the Virginia Tech job last week, ending a partnership with Franklin that went back to their days at Vanderbilt. One possible successor, staff member Anthony Poindexter, reportedly will be staying at Penn State despite rumors he would take the top job at his alma mater, Virginia, where he starred as a player.
It’s the latest thing for Nittany Lions fans to fret over, after they spent most of the regular season wondering about Franklin’s status before he inked an extension through 2031. The program has seemingly been at a crossroads throughout this calendar year. Now, the top guy is gone from the part of the staff getting the most positive results. And the program has to deal with the opening with the Early Signing Period a week away and a New Year’s Day bowl game on tap.
It’s possible the report that Poindexter is staying means he will take the defensive reins.
Otherwise, it’s hard to know which names sit atop Franklin’s list, and also hard to guess who might be interested in becoming Penn State’s next DC, especially if said person has head coaching experience and thus would be taking a pay cut. But it’s college football’s silly season, so what the heck — here are some ideas:
Let’s speculate …
Gary Patterson: This is a super longshot, as Patterson probably doesn’t want to be anyone’s assistant after 22 years leading TCU’s program. But Patterson, 61, was a DC before his long, successful stint as head coach of the Horned Frogs, so maybe he wouldn’t mind a less stressful gig before retiring. All that experience would be a boon to Franklin as well as the younger defensive staff members who stick around.
Larry Johnson: Most PSU fans remember Johnson, and fondly. He was a longtime member of the Joe Paterno’s staff and his son of the same name dominated at RB for the Lions from 1999-2002. Johnson coached the defensive line for Penn State from 2000-2013, leaving to take over the same duties at Ohio State upon Franklin’s arrival in 2014. Johnson seems settled in Columbus, but the Buckeyes did just hire Jim Knowles from Oklahoma State as their new DC. If Johnson, who is closing in on 70 years old, aspires to be a coordinator, he probably needs to make a move. Penn State may have burned that bridge, but that is not certain. Johnson is known not only for great work with DLs but in recruiting as well.
Manny Diaz: Diaz was recently fired after 3 years as Miami’s head coach. The 47-year-old has had DC experience at Miami, Mississippi State and Texas.
Todd Orlando: Orlando, 50, is currently the DC at USC, but whether he’ll be retained by new coach Lincoln Riley remains an open question. He’s led defenses at USC, Texas and Houston over the last 7 years. Originally from Pittsburgh, he’d likely be a good fit for recruiting purposes as well.
There are plenty more names that could be thrown out there. Franklin could make a big-splash hire or shock the masses by picking an obscure up-and-comer. Or he could promote from within.
Build back better?
It’s hard to argue with the points-against numbers, but Pry’s latest defense wasn’t great at getting off the field, pressuring QBs or getting key fourth-quarter stops. A little tweaking wouldn’t hurt, if Franklin can find someone to do it without messing up what works.
What about rest of staff?
As frustrating as this year’s offense has been, this is not the time to panic. That actually happened already, when Franklin jettisoned Kirk Ciarrocca after 1 year as OC for Mike Yurcich a year ago.
Frustrating as it might be, staying the course on offense makes more sense than further tinkering. Yurcich deserves the right to settle in and coach players he actually recruited, and O-line coach Phil Trautwein should return for a third season for the same reason.
Penn State’s incoming recruiting class features high 4-star or better players at QB, RB and WR who expect to play under Yurcich, and given his track record, odds are good this past season was an aberration. After all, Yurcich inherited a QB room with zero depth behind Sean Clifford, an under-performing set of RBs and a soft, shallow line.
The bottom line …
Penn State very well might be 2 years away from regaining the form necessary for a 10-win season. Getting back on that path requires a solid hire and then some stability.