Strong-arm tactics

Tennessee quarterback Nick Stephens may not be "The Bomb" but he certainly can throw the bomb. When he tells a receiver to "go long" during an informal workout, he isn't kidding.

The strong-armed sophomore from Flower Mound, Texas, can throw the football a long, long way. Just how long, though, is something that not even Nick Stephens knows.

"The last time I tried to throw (for distance) was my senior year in high school, and I threw it about 74 yards," he recalled this week. "Don't hold me to that, though, because the last time I tried that was about three years ago."

Suffice to say, Stephens can throw the ball far enough. If the 6-4, 215-pounder learns to throw it quickly enough and accurately enough, as well, he could beat out junior Jonathan Crompton and redshirt freshman B. J. Coleman to start the Vols' Sept. 1 opener at UCLA.

Because experience is such a valuable commodity at quarterback, most observers assumed Crompton would be listed No. 1 on the spring depth chart, with Stephens No. 2 and Coleman No. 3. Instead, all three are bracketed No. 1.

What does that mean?

"It means exactly what I want it to mean and what it should mean: Everybody has a fair shot," Stephens said. "Whoever performs, takes care of the ball and leads the team, that's who's going to play. That's what that means."

Counting a redshirt year in 2005, Crompton has three years of college experience. One year was in Randy Sanders' system, however, and the last two were in David Cutcliffe's system. Now that Dave Clawson is Tennessee's offensive coordinator, all three QBs are learning a new system, which could neutralize Crompton's experience advantage a bit.

"Coach Clawson is trying to treat us all the same," Stephens noted, "so we all just come out here and try to play hard."

After four years with Erik Ainge behind center, Tennessee has competition at quarterback again. You wonder, though: How much competition is there, really?

"There's a lot," Stephens said. "Whether it was Ainge here or an even playing field, there's always competition. Even if you know Ainge has the spot, you're still trying to compete and get yourself ready."

Head coach Phillip Fulmer recently downplayed the fact the Vols must play their 2008 opener on the road by noting that they have an experienced quarterback. This was a clearcut reference to Crompton, who is the only QB who has thrown a pass in a college game. Still, Stephens believes the coaches have not yet decided who the No. 1 quarterback will be.

"They tell us that and they SHOW us by the way they treat us," he said. "We all get the same amount of reps, and we always come out here and try to compete."

Ultimately, Stephens believes the key to winning the quarterback job is winning the coaches' confidence.

"Efficiency and no turnovers," he said. "If they can trust you in taking care of the ball, that's who's going to be playing. If they can trust you on your own 1-yard line, that's who's going to be playing. You can't turn the ball over to the opposing team; that'll get you beat."

Ironically, Stephens was just getting comfortable with Cuctliffe's scheme and terminology when he was told to forget all of that, then learn Clawson's scheme and terminology. Naturally, the adjustment has been somewhat taxing.

"It's been about what I expected," he said. "It's so hard to go from doing one thing to (something significantly different). It's so hard to do that and come out here and be productive. I think we've done a great job of being as effective as we possibly can at this point."

Asked if the all of the new information the QBs must process this spring has compounded the struggles they've had moving the ball consistently in scrimmages, Stephens shook his head.

"We're taking it one step at a time," he said. "We're not compounding anything. We're taking what we do bad and doing it good the next time. That's what we hope to do."

Stephens completed 5 of 8 passes for 54 yards in full-scale scrimmage No. 1 and 9 of 14 for 92 yards in scrimmage No. 2. He has not thrown an interception but has not thrown a touchdown pass, either. Crompton completed 10 of 18 for 103 yards and a TD in scrimmage No. 2 but was charged with three interceptions. Coleman was 12 of 18 for 63 yards and a TD but also threw an interception.

"Like Coach said, if you take away the picks (interceptions), then we moved the ball fine," Stephens said. "We would've moved the ball fine if we'd still had the ball. If you take away the turnovers, I think you go from a bad scrimmage to a decent scrimmage. That's what we're going to try and work toward."

Moving the ball against Tennessee defenders is no easy task this spring. They mass to stop the run and they may have the most talented secondary Vol quarterbacks will face.

"That's more speed than I've been around, honestly, and not just the first-team guys," Stephens said. "The guys behind them could play at a lot of other schools. The depth in the secondary is unbelievable here, and it can only make us (quarterbacks) better."

One thing already has made Nick Stephens significantly better. When he arrived on campus two years ago he had a hitch in his throwing motion that noticeably slowed his release. He has since eliminated that flaw, giving him a much quicker and more compact delivery.

"It has," he conceded. "Coach Cut was the one who worked on that. Coach Clawson doesn't work with us much from the waist up, except for here (pointing to his head).

"In high school I'd just drop back and do this," he added, making an exaggerated wind-up motion like a baseball pitcher. "Coach Cut wanted me to get the ball away quicker, basically just speed up my game and my tempo. That's one thing that has helped me that carried over from Coach Cutcliffe."

Even without winding up, though, Nick Stephens still can throw the football a long, long way.

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