Penn State safeties coach Anthony Poindexter has worked with some quality players.
Poindexter– who himself is a college football Hall of Fame safety who starred at the University of Virginia in the late 1990s and drew comparisons to Pro Football Hall of Famer and San Francisco 49ers legend Ronnie Lott,– has made a big impact on Penn State’s safeties room since coming to Happy Valley before the 2021 season.
In his first season, Poindexter helped Jaquan Brisker become an All-American and second-round draft pick of Chicago.
The next season, Poindexter oversaw Ji’Ayir Brown become the leader of Penn State’s safeties room. Brown went in the third round to the San Francisco 49ers.
KJ Winston won’t be draft eligible until after the 2024 season. But the current Penn State safety looks to be well on his way.
Born Kevin Winston Jr., the Penn State Class of 2022 signee played at the legendary DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville, Maryland.
It’s a high school that has produced past Penn State players, such as Cameron Wake. It’s also where current Penn State defensive tackle Coziah Izzard played.
At DeMatha, Winston lettered all four years. He became a two-time team captain and team MVP.
The four-star recruit committed in July 2021 and signed in December.
On signing day, coach James Franklin said he and his staff felt Winston could play multiple positions.
“He has the length, we think, that can play safety,” Franklin said. “We think he can also play the star, the nickel corner position, and there is part of me that would like to start him at corner to see if he could do that.”
Winston played at safety in 2022. Unlike most first-year players, he didn’t redshirt. He played in 12 of Penn State’s 13 games, ending with 16 tackles (11 solo) and a tackle for loss.
Still a young player, Winston’s already become a regular starter in Penn State’s secondary in 2023.
Through four games, Winston’s been on the field for 115 snaps.
Only five players have been on the field for more, and those are:
Abdul Carter (153)
Kalen King (150)
Curtis Jacobs (143)
Johnny Dixon (141)
Chop Robinson (123)
Of those five, four will be in the NFL next season, and the only one who won’t be Winston’s classmate Carter, won’t be draft eligible after this season but seems to be a solid bet to go in the first round of the 2025 draft.
Winston loves playing for “Coach Dex.”
“Hilarious,” was a word Winston used to describe him to reporters via Zoom Tuesday morning. “That’s my guy. Love having him as a coach. Blessed that I chose to play under him.”
Winston feels a big way that Poindexter has helped make him better is that he’s never asked Winston to be the next Jaquan Brisker, Ji’Ayir Brown or Anthony Poindexter.
He wants him to be the first KJ Winston.
As the great Audioslave and Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell once said, “To be yourself is all that you can do.”
“He’s never going to ask me to be these safeties he’s had before or be this person he has in the room,” Winston said. “He said, ‘Be the best you and I’ll be happy.'” He said ‘You play your best football, and that’s what I want out of you, and I don’t want you to be this person or that person.'”
At the time Winston heard this message, he was still a freshman, and this helped ensure that football would
“I feel like that was the best thing. Hearing that as a young freshman,” Winston said. “It allows you to be comfortable and be yourself and go out there and just play football like you always have since you were a little kid. So when you get that coming in, early, you’re feeling comfortable. So it puts you in the best position to feel ready to play.”
“If he was to come to me and say ‘we need you to be like Tig (Brown),’ that would put pressure on me, take away from my abilities and what I’m good at doing, because I’m trying to be like somebody else. When he tells you to just do what you do and be yourself, you’re playing like you were in Little League when you’re a young guy.”
The 6-foot-2, 203-pounder describes his style of play as “relentless” and that “flying around” is a big part of his game.
Poindexter spoke with media via Zoom days before Penn State’s season opener against West Virginia, and he praised Winston’s work ethic.
“If anybody’s been around KJ, he’s a really hard worker,” Poindexter said. “He’s really serious about football, he stays in the building constantly, just trying to take care of his body. He’s made great progress. He looks really good.”
If Winston keeps looking “really good” through the end of his college career, an NFL team will come calling.