"The one thing Nick doesn't lack is confidence," offensive coordinator Dave Clawson said. "After he hits Denarius, he wants to go out there and throw 50 more 50-yard balls."
Because Tennessee's ground game is struggling, the Vols are having to throw the ball a lot more than they anticipated this season. That's OK with Stephens, who loves to air it out 30 or 40 times per game.
"That's what I've done my whole football career," he noted. "We'd spread the field and throw the ball, so I'm used to it. Obviously, throwing the ball down the field is going to stretch the defense and open up running lanes for our backs."
Although Clawson would prefer a nice balance of runs and passes, he will not hesitate to call for Stephens to throw 40 passes if that's the best path to the end zone.
"You have to; he's our starting quarterback," the coordinator said. "You can't play the game scared. You can't say, 'Well, he's a sophomore and he hasn't played a lot.' If something's open you've got to ask him to execute it ... because if he can't, you're not going to win anyway."
Although his completion percentage dipped a bit, Stephens improved from Start 1 vs. Northern Illinois to Start 2 vs. Georgia. He consistently had the Vols at the line of scrimmage with 22 seconds left on the shot clock and his 30 pass attempts produced two touchdowns with zero interceptions.
"I thought I improved," he said. "I feel like any experience I get I should improve. Last week to this week I should improve even more."
Stephens' best play vs. Georgia saw him flushed from the pocket. Rolling to his left, he spotted Lucas Taylor in the back of the end zone and zipped a 12-yard strike to him.
"What was so encouraging about Nick's play," Clawson said, "was that we had a little bit of a breakdown and he got pushed out of the pocket, but he kept the play alive and made something good out of something bad. We haven't had enough of that happen this year."
Stephens was encouraged by the play, as well.
"Every play you make that makes a difference in the game in a good way is going to make your confidence grow – with you personally and with the team," he said. "Guys expect that now, and I've got to continue to make plays."
Stephens is no Heath Shuler or Tee Martin but he has enough mobility to escape the rush and buy an extra second or two when his pocket collapses. This is a talent that has served him well throughout his career.
"That's something I feel like I've always been good at – being able when the play breaks down to get outside the pocket, keep your eyes down the field and seeing the open guy," he said. "Big plays can be made when you're outside the pocket."