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Who Should James Franklin Hire to Replace John Scott Jr.?

Several former Nittany Lions could be of interest to fill the coaching vacancy.



James Franklin
Apr 23, 2022; University Park, Pennsylvania, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions head coach James Franklin on the field during a warm up prior to the Blue White spring game at Beaver Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matthew OHaren-USA TODAY Sports

James Franklin and the Penn State football program will kick off their highly anticipated 2023 season with the start of spring practice in less than two weeks. However, before they can begin their push for a Big Ten championship and beyond, the Nittany Lions must make a last-minute coaching hire.

On Monday, news broke that defensive line coach John Scott Jr. was leaving Happy Valley to take the same position with the Detroit Lions. James Franklin confirmed the story later on Twitter.

Who Should James Franklin Hire to Replace John Scott Jr.?

Obviously, the timing of the departure could be better, with winter workouts wrapping up and spring ball starting following the mid-semester break. But the NFL is the pinnacle of the sport. Having a staff member make that jump is ultimately a positive reflection of the coaching talent amassed in Happy Valley.

This vacancy interests me because – unlike the wide receiver search earlier this offseason – several names with Penn State ties immediately come to mind. And no, I’m not including Larry Johnson Sr. on this list.

Elijah Robinson, Defensive Line Coach, Texas A&M

Elijah Robinson is a name that is likely at the top of many Nittany Lions fans’ wish lists. He was high on the list the last time this position was open three years ago.

The New Jersey native’s connections to Penn State run deep, having spent over a decade with the program. Robinson was a member of the Nittany Lions’ roster between 2005 and 2008 but had his playing career cut short by an injury in 2006. He served as a graduate assistant under Joe Paterno from 2009 to 2011 – an era that produced defensive linemen like Devon Still, Jared Odrick, and Aaron Maybin. Following the coaching change in 2012, Robinson spent two years under Bill O’Brien as an NFL liaison and director of community relations.

After leaving Happy Valley, Robinson spent five years with fellow Penn Stater Matt Rhule as defensive line coach at Temple and Baylor. Robinson has been the defensive line coach at Texas A&M since 2018 and was given the title assistant head coach last season. While in College Station, Robinson has helped produce the SEC’s second-best rushing defense in 2018 and the nation’s third-best rushing defense in 2020.

Pulling Robinson away from Texas A&M would be a tall task, as the Aggies’ war chest runs deep. But it would, without a doubt, be a homerun hire. Robinson is one of the fastest-rising assistant coaches in the game, with deep ties to Penn State. On top of what he can do with the talent on the field, Robinson has connections with many NFL staffs and could help revive Penn State’s recruiting presence in New Jersey.

Deion Barnes, Analytics Coordinator, Penn State

Deion Barnes may be the most obvious choice to replace John Scott Jr., but the move would also come with the biggest risk.

Of course, many fans remember Barnes from his days donning the Blue and White. Part of JoePa’s last recruiting class, Barnes recorded 99 tackles, including 26.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks, between 2012 and 2014.

After a short-lived NFL career, Barnes returned to his native Philadelphia as a coach at Northeast High School. In 2020, he rejoined the Nittany Lions’ staff as a graduate assistant. He was quickly recognized as an emerging talent in the coaching ranks. In fact, it was touted as a massive success when James Franklin kept Barnes on staff as an analyst after his three years as a graduate assistant ended following the 2022 season.

Barnes also has vocal support from several former Nittany Lions. At the NFL Combine on Wednesday, defensive tackle PJ Mustipher went on record with his thoughts about Barnes.

“I want Coach Franklin to hire him,” he stated. “I think he should because he’s put in a lot of work with our defensive line.”

As Mustipher’s comments made their way around Penn State circles, this sentiment was reiterated by former Nittany Lion Aeneas Hawkins and current Atlanta Falcon Arnold Ebiketie.

Hiring Barnes would go over immensely well with Penn State fans. Barnes is a beloved former player who has become one of Lasch’s shining stars. He has significantly impacted the players he’s interacted with. Barnes also plays a critical role in recruiting Philadelphia. He almost certainly will be a successful coach one day.

However, the caveat is that this would be a significant step up for Barnes. It’s one thing to believe in a largely unproven talent. But it’s quite another to take a leap of faith in a year when the expectations for Penn State football are already sky-high.

Sean Spencer, Defensive Line Coach, Florida

Sean Spencer certainly doesn’t need an introduction with the Penn State faithful.

Spencer spent six seasons riding his motorcycle around State College as a member of James Franklin’s staff between 2014 and 2019. John Scott Jr.’s position was actually created by Spencer’s departure in 2020 when he left to become the defensive line coach for the New York Giants. After spending two seasons in the NFL, Spencer returned to the college ranks to coach the Florida Gator’s defensive line in 2022.

The defensive line was one of the strongest units in the program when Spencer was at Penn State. In 2014, Penn State finished third in the country in scoring defense. The Nittany Lions led the nation in sacks in both 2015 and 2018. Between 2015 and 2019, Penn State had at least 40 sacks in each season. This is the longest such streak in program history.

This move is the most unlikely of the three I’ve listed. I don’t necessarily see Spencer making a linear move back to Happy Valley. However, Florida is having a turbulent offseason, with three assistant coaches leaving the program in a week. Florida finished under .500 in Billy Napier’s first season in Gainesville. Perhaps the relative stability and familiarity of James Franklin and Penn State would entice Spencer.

Round and Round it Goes

The coaching carousel is fun to watch until it hits too close to home. This hire may not feel as critical as the wide receiver search did in January. But, despite talent on the edge, the line was the weakest link of the defense last year.

If James Franklin can hit the mark in this latest coaching search, then Penn State can look to elevate what was already a stellar defense in 2022.

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Matt is a co-owner and Editor in Chief of Basic Blues Nation. Launched in 2022, Basic Blues Nation is one of the fastest-growing websites covering all Penn State athletics, with over 3.5 million readers in 2023. Matt is also a credentialed member of the Penn State football beat, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America.


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