It wasn't the kind of flashy play that shows up on ESPN's SportCenter but it was the kind of heady play that makes a smile show up on the face of offensive coordinator Dave Clawson.
"I'm watching the play develop and I'm thinking the ball's going to get there quicker," Clawson recalled this week. "I'm like, 'Throw it! Throw it! Throw it!' I was watching the play develop. And then when I went back and watched the film, I saw that he was getting some pressure and had to sidestep a rush, which is why it got there late."
The pass may not have been perfectly timed but it was perfectly thrown. Most importantly, it was complete, thanks to the poise Stephens showed in reading the defense and standing in against the rush. That brought another smile to Clawson's face.
"You hate to overstate anything," the coordinator said, "but the first play that we hit a third down, I felt great about that. We had a third-and-10 and he hits Briscoe on a dig. He read the play correctly and he saw the safety roll and the ball was on time, and even then he had a guy in his face. And I thought he wristed that one real well."
When asked which play got him over the hump in his first start, Stephens quickly pointed to that first completion.
"I think the third play of the game ... just going out in the first series and converting a third-and-long to a backside dig when you had pressure in your face," he recalled. "That gives you all the confidence you need to go out and finish the game."
It must have because Stephens finished his first start 10 of 17 (with two dropped passes) for 156 yards and a touchdown. He made good decisions and good throws, showing excellent poise and a big-time arm in the process.
"With the exception of one throw he didn't force the football," Clawson said. "I think he took what was there. He got to his second and third progression at times. He played within the offense, which I think was the most encouraging thing, and then he took shots when he had them."
After throwing mostly short routes in the first half, Stephens "took his shots" in the second half. His first pass of the third quarter was a 43-yard bomb to Gerald Jones and his third was a 52-yard TD strike to Denarius Moore. Make no mistake: This is a guy who likes to throw the long ball.
"That's something I work on every day in practice," he said. "Anytime I get a chance to throw a deep ball, I've got confidence in my receivers' speed, so I'm going to put it out there for them and let them make a play."
Given that he will be making his second college start this Saturday at No. 10 Georgia, Stephens can expect a lot of blitzing as the Bulldogs attempt to shake his poise and disrupt his timing.
"We'll see," he said. "If we go out and take those shots and make some plays, it's going to change the way defenses play."
Because Northern Illinois was his first career start, Stephens was very limited in what he was asked to do last Saturday. He'll have a heavier workload this Saturday in Athens.
"I think a little bit more can be placed on him because now he's run the huddle, he's called the plays," Clawson said. "I thought he managed things well. I thought there might have been only two plays the whole game that we had a clock issue.
"You would hope that there's a progression from Game 1 to Game 2. At the same time, Game 2 is on the road at Georgia in a different environment. I don't think now you just double the workload. You run your offense and do the things you need to do to win the game and score points. I don't think because he has one game under his belt that you can say, 'OK, bang, here we go.' And you give him everything."
Terming last Saturday's performance "decent," Stephens promises to be a lot better in his second start than he was in his first.
"I wasn't really nervous the first game," he said. "I did have a lot of butterflies. It was kind of surreal, to be honest. Taking the field when the score was 0-0 and leading the team, it was fun. Experience makes you better, and that's what it was – an experience – and leading up to this Saturday I think it can help."
Although Stephens was good against Northern Illinois, he must be twice as good against Georgia for Tennessee to have a chance to upset the Bulldogs.
"The expectations are different," he conceded. "My expectations are different, too. I go out expecting to make every throw, make every right read."
Because he made all of Tennessee's road trips the past three years, Stephens says he won't be affected by the pressure, the noise and the hostility he encounters Saturday at Sanford Stadium. His head coach agrees.
"It will be a lot faster, a lot louder and a lot more physical down there this weekend," Phillip Fulmer said, "but I don't see Nick being intimidated by that at all."
If he is nervous, Stephens hides it well.
"I'm excited – being on a platform like that with that many people in a big stadium," he said. "It's Georgia week, and it's going to be fun."