Stephens '100 times different'

Whether he's better than Jonathan Crompton is still to be determined by Tennessee's coaches. That Nick Stephens is far better than he was last spring, though, is without question.

"I feel 100 times different right now, in terms of knowing the offense and getting through progressions a lot faster," Stephens said following Saturday's full-scale scrimmage. "I feel 100 times different and I feel like I'm going to keep getting better."

The 6-4, 227-pound Texan started six games at quarterback for the 2008 Vols and was bracketed first-team with Crompton and B. J. Coleman as spring practice approached last March. A freak fall broke a bone in Stephens' wrist, however, and caused him to miss the first half of spring practice. When he joined the workouts he was unable to throw with his previous velocity and he was way behind the other QBs in terms of familiarity with the new pro-style offense.

After a summer spent studying the playbook and three weeks of preseason camp, however, Stephens believes he is comfortable enough with the new scheme to run the show if the coaches hand him the reins.

Specifically, he says he is "quicker through my progressions, knowing where everybody is, knowing the protections, seeing defenses and seeing where the blitz is coming and who's dropping."

Unofficially, Stephens completed 10 of 18 passes for 101 yards in Saturday's scrimmage. He threw no touchdowns and no interceptions, although one pass over the middle nearly was picked off by freshman middle linebacker Nigel Mitchell-Thornton.

"I got hit in my back as soon as I let it go; that made the ball come out different," Stephens said. "No excuses. It was third and long and I was trying to make a play. I could've checked the ball down (to a safer throw) but that's part of football.

"Sometimes you're going to get hit when you're throwing the ball and it's not going to come out right, so you just have to move on."

That was one of only two times Stephens was hit Saturday. The other time he was sacked by defensive end Chris Donald. Stephens saw that as proof he is doing a better job of getting the ball away on time.

"I might've had one sack, which is a big improvement," he said. "I was getting through my progressions faster, throwing the ball and not trying to force things. That one throw was my worst throw of the day. I can't think of any mistakes other than that. I've got something to build off of, and I'm going to keep trying to get better."

Although the Vols sustained four false-start penalties while Stephens was at the controls, he thought the team responded well for its first time getting play calls signaled in from the sidelines. Previously, head coach Lane Kiffin called the plays from a spot just behind the offensive huddle.

"Based on the coaches not being in the huddle, I think we set the bar pretty high," Stephens said. "We didn't have many problems calling the plays with the signals and wrist bands. We set the bar pretty high but it was a good place to start from. By the time game day rolls around we'll be fine."


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