Penn State Football

Penn State Football: Top-5 Defensive Coordinator Candidates to Replace Manny Diaz

With Penn State Football defensive coordinator Manny Diaz off to take the head coaching position at Duke, Penn State finds itself with a second coordinator search of the offseason.

Previously, Penn State head coach James Franklin has stressed the desire for a “head coach of the defense” as defensive coordinator and may look for a candidate with head coaching experience.

There is, however, also an internal candidate that makes sense for Penn State.

5 top candidates for Penn State Football to replace Manny Diaz

1. Anthony Poindexter

Anthony Poindexter has been with Penn State for 3 years, as co-defensive coordinator and coaching the safeties.

Poindexter has done a fantastic job with the safeties, coaching Jaquan Brisker into a second-round NFL draft pick in 2022 and Ji’Ayir Brown into a third-round pick in 2023.

Promoting Poindexter would allow Penn State to keep running the same system on defense that the Nittany Lions have run over the past two years and perhaps would keep Poindexter in Happy Valley awhile longer, as he has shown interest in other positions, including the UVA head coaching position, in the past few cycles.

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2. Jim Leonard

Most recently a senior football analyst at Illinois, Jim Leonard has been near the top of every defensive coordinator search this season.

At Wisconsin, Leonard led a top 10 defense from 2017 to 2021 and was a finalist for the Broyles award for the top assistant coach in college football in 2017. Leonard would be a home run hire, although he already turned down USC’s defensive coordinator position this coaching cycle.

3. Tom Allen

Tom Allen was a stalwart at Indiana, known for a tough defense in the Big Ten.

After being fired after 7 seasons at Indiana, Allen could make an intriguing candidate, although the fans may not have forgiven Allen for Indiana’s overtime win against Penn State in 2020.

Allen is another coach who would fit Franklin’s “head coach of the defense” mold.

4. Zach Arnett

Similar to the Manny Diaz situation in 2021, Zach Arnett would be another head coach reclamation project.

Arnett was Mississippi State’s defensive coordinator from 2020 to 2022 with a reputation for “aggressive play, heavy blitzing and a commitment to physicality”, all points of emphasis under Manny Diaz as well.

While Arnett may not have succeeded as Mississippi State’s head coach, his defensive mind and aggressive style could work well for Penn State as the “head coach” of Penn State’s defense.

5. Elijah Robinson

Elijah Robinson is a bit of a stretch on this list, having just taken the defensive coordinator position at Syracuse earlier this offseason.

Robinson, however, spent 10 seasons at Penn State Football, both as a player and a staff member. Robinson is seen as a fantastic up-and-comer in the coaching community and an excellent recruiter, where he thrived bringing top talent to Texas A&M as defensive line coach.

Robinson is probably a few years away from a realistic candidate as he has yet to operate in a defensive coordinator role for a season calling plays for a defense. His few games as interim head coach at Texas A&M and his previous experience with the Nittany Lions at least make him an intriguing candidate.

What Will James Franklin Look for in Penn State Football Defensive Coordinator? 

The selection of the next defensive coordinator is one of the most important selections of James Franklin’s career, as Penn State must take the next step into the 12-team playoff over next few seasons.

Penn State’s defense has thrived under Diaz the past two seasons and can’t afford to take a step back if the Lions want to challenge for a Big Ten championship in the new look Big Ten and its first College Football Playoff berth. 

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Robert Casturo

Expertise: College Football, Penn State Football Education: Saint Vincent College, Penn State Law School Location: Washington, DC Experience: Robert Casturo has covered Penn State football for NittanyCentral since 2022. Casturo previously covered Penn State football through a social media presence (@PSU_FB_Thoughts on X) since 2019. Casturo earned his bachelor's degree from Saint Vincent College in 2015, where he was a punter for 1 season on the Saint Vincent College football team and worked in the athletic department for 2 years as a student manager. Casturo earned his JD from Penn State Law in 2018 where he was a senior editor of the Penn State Law Review.