"Nick has actually made better decisions in games than he does in practice," Dave Clawson said this week. "There's throws he'll make in practice where you shake your head and go, 'What were you thinking?'
"He's managed games well so far. He's got to continue to do that because it helps us when we're turnover free."
"For a guy starting for the first time to have not thrown a pick is impressive," Clawson said. "Now, at Georgia there's probably two balls that should've been picked, and there was one ball against Mississippi State where there easily could've been an interception. But, for the most part, he's taking care of the ball and throwing it away when it's appropriate."
Mindful of his reputation as a guy who doesn't always value the football, Stephens has been a little more cautious since moving into the starting lineup.
"I've tried to tone that down a little bit – make smarter decisions and see where I'm throwing the football, rather than feeling it," he said. "I've been smart with the football. I'm seeing the receivers and knowing where they're going to be."
As for Clawson's comment that he takes more risks in practice than in games, Stephens readily concedes that point.
"Yeah, I think that's what you need to do," he said. "If you make a mistake in practice it's not going to hurt the team. It just lets you know what you can and can't do.
"I don't like it when I make a mistake in practice; neither does Coach Clawson. But I'll watch it and learn something from it. It's not like I go out every play and try fit a ball through a tight window, but certain plays in certain situations I'll try to make a play."
Stephens is especially inclined to "try to make a play" when Denarius Moore is running a deep route. The two have collaborated on pass plays of 52, 60 and 45 yards the past three weeks. Eventually, that should force opposing defenses to stop overplaying the run so much.
"Big plays is something every offense needs," Stephens noted. "We've done a good finding those, and we've got to continue along that path."
Although he is best known for his big-league arm, Stephens also has decent feet. He can buy time in the pass pocket with his scrambling and actually rambled 18 yards for a crucial first down against Mississippi State.
"The thing that Nick did well was he made two or three plays with his feet," Clawson recalled. "There was one time that Mississippi State brought pressure and the tailback blew the assignment and didn't pick up the Will (weakside) linebacker, and Nick scrambled and got an 18-yard play. That was a real encouraging play."
Stephens won't make Vol fans forget Condredge Holloway, Jimmy Streater, Heath Shuler or Tee Martin anytime soon. Still, he is mobile enough to turn a potential sack into a modest gain from time to time.
As Clawson noted: "I don't know that anyone's looking at him saying, 'Man, we don't want to get him on the perimeter with his feet.' But you want a quarterback to have awareness. ... The protection is not always perfect and to get something out of nothing, I think, is important for any quarterback."
That's especially true on The Hill, where playing quarterback for Tennessee is no picnic ... and No-Pick Nick.