Stephens will start

After watching Tennessee's offense fire blanks for four games, head coach Phillip Fulmer has entrusted the attack to a gunslinger ... for now.

As expected, Fulmer announced this evening that sophomore Nick Stephens will start Game 5 against Northern Illinois Saturday night at Neyland Stadium. He replaces junior Jonathan Crompton, who was ineffective as the starting quarterback in Games 1-4.

Stephens, a 6-4, 215-pounder from the Dallas suburb of Flower Mound, Texas, has a rifle arm and a reputation as a gunslinger because of his willingness to take chances.

"Sometimes he'll force some things in there," offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said earlier this week. "Nick probably has more of those (throws) where you're saying, 'No! No! No!' and then you're saying, 'Great ball.'"

Asked about his "gunslinger" reputation, Stephens smiled.

"I hear that a lot," he said, "but I don't really know what that means. Honestly. I go out and I play football. I've been doing it for a long time. I guess if that's the way people feel like I play, then that's the way I play. Decision-making is something I've improved on the past month, checking the ball down to the backs (instead of always going downfield)."

Informed that Clawson believes he attempts a few too many risky passes in practice, Stephens smiled again.

"A couple of times stick out when that's happened," he said. "It's good when it happens sometimes. At the same time you try to minimize that and play within what he wants you to play – check the ball down and just move the chains. You don't always have to go down the field. That's one of the biggest things I've learned."

Fulmer essentially had no choice but to change quarterbacks. Tennessee is dead last among the 12 SEC teams in passing efficiency and Crompton (52.0 completion percentage, 4 interceptions, 2 touchdowns) has grossly underachieved while guiding the Vols to a 1-3 start.

"Obviously, the quarterback position at Tennessee has garnered a lot of attention ... as it should," Fulmer said earlier today.

After conceding that the Vols need "a lot more production from the quarterback position," the head man noted that "Jon has had his opportunities in the ball games – and this certainly doesn't say that he won't have future opportunities at all – but Nick has made progress and he deserves a chance to see how he does in a football game."

Ultimately, Fulmer said he opted for Stephens because the Vols "need an offensive lift at this point."

Although the move appears to be a demotion of Crompton, the coaches prefer to view the change as a promotion for Stephens.

"Jonathan has struggled," Clawson conceded earlier in the week, "but Nick has made some great strides the last three or four weeks."

Stephens has thrown just two passes all season, completing one. That was a 42-yarder from his own end zone in the fourth quarter of a 35-3 Game 2 drubbing of UAB. He also scrambled five yards for a first down in that game.

Crompton, one of the most heralded high school quarterbacks Tennessee has signed, has exhibited great ability in scrimmages but has not performed to the same level in games. The 6-4, 240-pounder is enormously gifted physically but has struggled with the mental side of the game.

Will Stephens be any better in that area? Perhaps. He believes he is thinking the game better now than he was when the season began.

"Mentally, I'm faster and not making as many mistakes as I used to," he said earlier this week. "That's the biggest thing. Most quarterbacks you recruit at this level have all of the ability in the world. It's just who has it up top (brain)."


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