Vols discover the deep ball

The time was 7:25 but it felt like High Noon for one Texas Gunslinger Saturday night at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee quarterback Nick Stephens, making his first collegiate start, was so eager to run the Vols' first play that he began pestering the referee during a timeout.

"It was funny," receiver Gerald Jones recalled. "When he first got in they were having a TV timeout, and he was rushing the ref, asking, 'How much time do I have? How much time do I have?' The ref said 30 seconds, but 10 seconds later he was asking, 'How much time do I have now?'

"He was ready. He was more pumped up than anyone on offense. You could tell."

Stephens, a 6-4, 215-pound sophomore from the Dallas suburb of Flower Mound, Texas, is considered a "gunslinger" because of his fondness for throwing deep. He kept his high-caliber arm holstered in the first half of Saturday night's game with Northern Illinois, however. His seven first-half completions (in 11 attempts) netted a modest 54 yards.

He came out blazing in the third quarter, however, completing a 43-yard bomb to Jones on his first pass of the second half and finding Denarius Moore with a 52-yard touchdown strike on his third throw. Obviously, the Vols saw something in the first half they decided to exploit in the second half.

"Exactly," Stephens said. "We practiced those two plays in practice a lot this week, and we felt we could go out and execute them. We didn't really have a chance in the first half to run those plays but the first opportunity we got in the second half we went out and took a shot."

Stephens showcased his big-time arm on the pass to Jones, zipping the ball 40-plus yards despite throwing off the wrong foot while scrambling. He was able to set his feet on the TD pass, which hit Moore in perfect stride.

"We thought from the first half we'd have a shot with it," Stephens said of the touchdown throw. "I didn't feel any pressure, so I was looking for D-Mo. He started coming open, and I know he can run, so I just threw it out there for him."

Head coach Phillip Fulmer, who benched junior quarterback Jonathan Crompton after Tennessee lost three of its first four games, conceded that Stephens looked good Saturday night for a first-time starter.

"Nick didn't disappoint me," Fulmer said. "I was really proud of the way he managed the game and threw the ball for the most part. There's certainly a need to grow, and he'll do that. This was a good experience for him."

Whereas Crompton seemed to fight a losing battle with his nerves in Games 1-4, Stephens appeared relatively cool, calm and collected in Game 5.

"I thought he was extremely poised," Fulmer said. "The (play) clock got really close a couple of times but this was his first big game. Early on especially, I thought he was really in rhythm. I thought he did a nice job."

Asked if Stephens' performance has solidified the quarterback position, Fulmer's response was short and to the point: "Yes."

Stephens finished the evening 10 of 17 passing for 156 yards and Tennessee finished with a 13-9 victory. The performance wasn't a thing of beauty but it beat losing.

"It ended up all right," Stephens noted. "I'm not complaining."

Encouraged by their newfound gunslinger at quarterback, Vol fans weren't, either.

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