All in the wrist

One time he dropped the ball as he was starting his throwing motion. Another time he threw a pass that fluttered like a drunken butterfly – more end-over-end than spiral.

Clearly, Tennessee quarterback Nick Stephens' first day of full-scale practice following a pre-spring fracture of his right wrist featured some embarrassing moments. But it also featured some encouraging moments, and he was grateful for those.

"It felt pretty good in the beginning," he said of the injured wrist. "As I got progressively more snaps, my grip just got weaker and weaker, so I'm just going to rehab and keep getting it better. For the most part, I'm way ahead of schedule, and it feels a lot better than I thought it would at this point."

Stephens, a 6-4, 227-pound rising junior from Flower Mound, Texas, estimated that his wrist is "about 85-percent" healthy. He came out Monday (a non-practice day) and took a few snaps, just to see if the wrist could withstand the strain. It could, so he gave it a bigger test Tuesday.

"We were going to see how many I could take," he said. "The more (snaps) I take the more it's going to hurt ... so I just did whatever I could do today."

Assuming things go well in Thursday afternoon's workout, Stephens projected that by Saturday's scrimmage "I should be good to go."

Perhaps operating on adrenalin, he felt more strength than pain in his wrist at the start of Tuesday's workout. The more he practiced, however, the more that equation flip-flopped.

"It's definitely something you think about," he said. "Right now I can't control that, so I have to keep fighting it, keep rehabbing, doing what I can control."

One thing he has trouble controlling is the velocity and accuracy of his passes. Obviously, when a guy's grip is inconsistent, his throws will be, too.

"The pain is not that bad," he said. "It's just grip strength. That's one of the things I'm working on in the training room. Normally, I can just grab the ball and do whatever I want with it. Right now I'm having trouble making sure it's not sailing on me."

When healthy, Stephens has the strongest arm on the Vol roster. Tuesday it was the weakest. Still, he was thrilled to be back on the practice field.

"It felt good to get out, actually make some live reads," he said. "I haven't done that in awhile, so it was good to get back with the team."

Stephens may be behind physically but he is not behind mentally. Because he listened to every word spoken in every quarterback meeting and every huddle this spring, Stephens is as well versed in the Vols' new pro-style offense as fellow QBs Jonathan Crompton and B. J. Coleman.

"Absolutely," Stephens said. "Every play Coach Kiffin called today, I went to the line and knew what I was looking for. I knew I'd make the right read. I'm comfortable with where I am mentally."

So is Lane Kiffin, who believes Stephens made excellent use of his time when he was rehabbing the injury.

"He really sat in on extra meetings, really studied, really asked questions. Even on the field when he wasn't able to do it (physically) – he'd come over and ask questions," the Vols' head man said. "I thought he looked really comfortable today. He didn't look like a guy that it was his first shot out there."

With seven practices and the Orange & White Game still to come, Stephens has a chance to salvage his spring and make the quarterback competition a three-man race again. Kiffin would love to see that.

"It was really good to see him out there," the head man said. "He looked comfortable, especially in his decision-making and his drops and the other things we gave him today. We'll keep giving him more and more."

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