In the Nick of time

He's surely the only quarterback in Tennessee history to launch his first collegiate pass from his own end zone.

That distinction belongs to Nick Stephens, whose poise could get an even bigger test if he is tabbed to start Saturday's game with visiting Northern Illinois. That's a distinct possibility, since starter Jonathan Crompton is completing just 52 percent of his passes with more interceptions (4) than touchdowns (2).

"I feel like I'm ready," said Stephens, a 6-4, 215-pound sophomore from Flower Mound, Texas. "I feel like I've made improvements over the past month that I hadn't made since I've been here. I feel like I've run the offense and I feel like I'm playing faster. If I get an opportunity this weekend I feel like I'm capable of moving the team."

His eagerness to run the show is understandable. He has played just one season of varsity football in the past five years.

Stephens was the junior varsity quarterback at LaMarcus High School as a sophomore in 2003. He transferred to Madison Southern in 2004, won the first-team QB job in preseason, then learned he was ineligible for varsity competition because of an obscure transfer rule. After directing the Madison Southern JV team in '04, he finally got to play varsity football in 2005.

Stephens made the most of his belated opportunity. He completed 36 of 60 passes for 440 yards and five touchdowns in one game, eventually finishing the season with 2,602 yards and 24 TDs.

That would be his last activity for two more years, however. Stephens redshirted as a Vol freshman in 2006, never left the sidelines as a redshirt freshman in 2007, then sat out the 2008 opener at UCLA. After watching 28 UT games without playing in one, he finally got his big chance in the fourth quarter of the '08 home opener against UAB. With the Vols leading 35-3 but facing a third-and-10 at their own 3-yard line, he was pleasantly surprised to see a pass play sent in from the sidelines.

"Obviously, that was a tough situation," he recalled. "We (members of the No. 2 offense) were told we had to get at least one first down to get out of that situation."

After getting the play call from graduate assistant Jim Bob Cooter, Stephens noted that the Blazers were in the anticipated defense. He figured tight end Brandon Warren would be open deep. He was right.

"Jim Bob signaled it in and I was thinking, 'This is the play we've been going with on the goal line against this team, and if I get that one look they've been giving us, I'm going to take a shot with Brandon.'

"I knew where I was going to go with the football. Seeing Brandon come open like that, it felt good ... especially being backed up in your own end zone."

Stephens' pass was a laser-like strike that hit Warren in perfect stride for a 42-yard gain. As debut pass attempts go, it would be hard to script a much better one.

"That being the first pass (completion) of your career is always a great feeling," Stephens said.

He threw only one more pass that day – an incompletion – and did not leave the bench in losses to Florida and Auburn that dropped Tennessee's record to 1-3.

With Crompton underachieving and the Vol offense stagnating, the staff decided to give Stephens half of the first-team practice repetitions this week and see if he can win the starting job. He surely is excited, yet he masks it well.

"You try not to think any different than you've been thinking," he said. "You just go to practice, prepare the same way – prepare hard, watch a lot of film and try to get ready for the game."

Essentially, each practice repetition he gets this week is an opportunity to wrest the top job from Crompton. That's a lot of pressure.

"It's tough if you make it tough," Stephens said. "You have to go out there and take advantage of the reps you get. No matter how many you get – if you get one or 10 – you have to take advantage of the reps you get."

If Stephens shows the same poise against the pass rush Saturday that he showed today with the press, the Vols may have found themselves a quarterback. He does not appear nervous at all.

"I felt nervous last year," he said. "But I'm ready this year, so I don't. I'm not nervous; I'm just going out and playing. I'm doing what I know how to do. I've prepared myself in a way that I don't feel like I need to be nervous.

"You're going to have butterflies, obviously, if you get a chance to play, but you have to make your emotions stay low and just play football."

Now that Stephens poses a bona-fide threat to Crompton's first-team job, you wonder if their relationship has become a bit strained. Stephens said it hasn't.

"Everybody wants to be The Guy and not everybody can be The Guy," he said. "You have to want to win. When you want to win, you practice hard and whatever happens happens. We just have to move the ball and put points on the board.

"Nothing really has changed. When we see each other we're going to talk. On the football field we're competitors, so we're going to go out and play – not have conversations – just go out and try to play the best that we can."


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