Taylor Stubblefield looks down, shakes his head ever so slightly and struggles not to bite too deeply into his bottom lip.
This is the new Penn State receivers coach’s introductory meeting with the press, and he’s hearing it again. The same question, asked a little bit differently. When one wave of reporters leaves him, another arrives. He has figured out just about 10 minutes into this that the big question always comes with it.
“I mean, it makes sense,” Stubblefield said, fending off apologies for the repetition of it all. “Shoot, I understand it. I completely understand it.”
In the last three seasons, Penn State has had three different receivers coaches.
In the last 10 seasons, Stubblefield has had eight jobs.
This is a game in which you hope for as much stability as you can get, and a Penn State fan base that is only now getting used to the seemingly constant shuffle of assistant coaches at the major-college level sees a new receivers coach who has been a relative vagabond, and the math might not add up.
But while there was no agreement made between Stubblefield and the man who hired him, head coach James Franklin, on how long the former star Purdue receiver would stay in Happy Valley, Franklin is gambling on the reality of Stubblefield’s situation ultimately helping solve problems at the one assistant spot that seems to have been his biggest bugaboo over the last few years.
“(He’s) a guy that has been a number of places. (We) had a lot of conversations in hiring him about the stability aspect of it,” Franklin said. “We need stability. The interesting thing is he needs it, too. One of the stories that a lot of people have talked about is that he hasn’t necessarily shown that in his career. It’s something that he needs, and we both need, right now. So I think that helps.”
It’s an interesting approach, really. It’s one Franklin seems to be taking with more coaches than just the well-traveled Stubblefield.
The two things Stubblefield and Phil Trautwein — the two assistants Franklin has hired so far to fill myriad vacancies that have developed on his staff this offseason — have in common is that both were terrific college players who have never been assistants on a team this close to the College Football Playoff. Save a two-year stint as Davidson’s tight ends coach, Trautwein spent his entire coaching career coaching offensive linemen at Boston College. By all accounts, he did a terrific job there. Boston College protected its quarterbacks better, statistically, than all but a handful of lines in the nation those two years. Plus, Trautwein helped develop Chris Lindstrom, a middling prospect coming out of high school, into the No. 14 overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft.
Trautwein was an intriguing name at Boston College. He’s not going to be a big name until he has that kind of success at a place like Penn State, where he’ll get to show what players under his tutelage can do against some of the best teams in the nation. In Chestnut Hill, Trautwein’s lines faced just six ranked teams and lost every time. He’ll get a chance to prove, with better talent and better competition, he can be one of the best offensive line coaches in the nation. This is a post he can see himself staying in for a while.
“For me, you know, this (job) is up there,” Trautwein said. “I mean, maybe being an (offensive coordinator), but I love offensive line play and a lot of OCs out there aren’t offensive line coaches. But I love coaching offensive line so for me, this is, this is pretty, pretty high.”
Stubblefield’s ultimate goal is similar. He’d like to be an offensive coordinator someday.
He also understands he doesn’t know the first thing about being an offensive coordinator. He hasn’t learned from one person how to do the job. He hasn’t settled into one system.
“For me, professionally, I know that I need to be at a place for an extended period of time in order for me to grow the way that I need to grow,” he said.
One Franklin hire who tends to stay in the jobs he’s hired to do is offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca, who has stayed at least three seasons at all three coordinators jobs he has held in the FBS. Ciarrocca grew up a Penn State fan just outside of Harrisburg, and while it’s certainly possible making a major impact early with the Nittany Lions will lead to a head coaching position, it stands to reason that Franklin sold Stubblefield on the opportunity to learn the ins and outs of running an offense from Ciarrocca over several seasons.
“If we went over each move, there’d be probably a little bit more of an understanding of why I took those jobs,” Stubblefield said of his prior stops. “But the biggest thing is that I truly feel like I’m at a place were it fits me. This is a place, for as long as I’ve known about the Big Ten, I’ve been having my eye on.”
Every coach says that. Every job is a dream job. Every office is located in the greatest community a coach has ever seen. They say things that sound right to fans, because fans are important to have on your side. But really, these are professionals with goals and dreams, and who knows when opportunities to pursue those goals and dreams will present themselves.
Franklin’s staffs have certainly been in flux more often over the last three years than any Penn State staffs have been in decades. But, Franklin’s teams have won at a higher rate since 2016 than any Penn State teams have won in decades. Success, it would seem, isn’t reliant on stability.
Stability is a happy tag-along with that success, if you can find it. Time will tell if James Franklin has.
DONNIE COLLINS is a sport columnist for The Times-Tribune. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.