Rusty to trusty

Tennessee quarterbacks threw 397 passes last season, which the Vols' backup found encouraging. He threw just 13 of them, though, which he did not find encouraging.

After scarcely playing enough to break a sweat in 2009, Nick Stephens is hoping to unleash his powerful right arm in 2010. And, with '09 starter Jonathan Crompton out of eligibility, the coaches are giving Stephens every opportunity to win the first-team QB job.

"Absolutely," he said following Saturday's second workout of the spring. "For the most part, I've taken advantage of it. I want to continue showing them that I know what I'm doing and that I'm going to protect the ball. I had a couple of mistakes - one each day - but I'll get rid of those, and I think we'll be all right."

As a fifth-year senior who has been in the program four years already, Stephens has a significant edge in experience over fellow QBs Nick Lamaison (a juco transfer who redshirted last year), Matt Simms (a first-year juco transfer) and freshman Tyler Bray. None of the others has thrown a pass in a college game but Stephens isn't counting on that to help him.

"I'm not looking behind me," he said. "I know what I can do. I've been through a lot of coaching changes. I've taken a lot of information from each of those coaches, and I know a lot about the game."

He knows a lot about humility, too. Throwing just 13 passes in 13 games made last fall a troubling time to endure. When asked what he gained from that season, he paused thoughtfully.

"Are you talking about a positive experience?" he asked, grinning sheepishly.

After another pause, he replied: "No matter what you do, you've got to pull a positive out of it or you'll make yourself miserable. From the playing experience I got last year I think I played pretty well.

"I knew coming into this year that there would be nobody in front of me and it would be my job to lose. If you worry about last year it's just going to make you a negative person, so I'm not doing that."

Many observers thought Stephens would be the No. 1 quarterback in 2009, since he supplanted Crompton as the starter four games into 2008 season. After going 2-4 in six starts, however, Nick relinquished the top job. Still, he finished with 840 passing yards and an impressive 13.3 yards-per-completion average.

He hoped to build on that experience in '09 but it never happened. Crompton started every game and played every meaningful snap all season. Stephens saw mopup duty in Game 1 vs. Western Kentucky (4 of 4 for 44 yards), in Game 6 vs. Georgia (0 of 0) and in Game 9 vs. Memphis (5 of 9 for 98 yards). He finished 9 of 13 for 142 yards.

Now that he is down to his final year of collegiate eligibility, Stephens understands he's facing a now-or-never situation. He says he doesn't view that as pressure, however.

"I'm not looking back," he said. "I'm just going to keep playing loose and having fun."

Darin Hinshaw is Stephens' fourth QB coach in five years, following David Cutcliffe (2006 and 2007), Dave Clawson (2008) and David Reaves (2009). Fortunately, Stephens will have Jim Chaney as his offensive coordinator for the second year in a row.

"That helps so much to have a little consistency from last year - not terminology-wise but playcalling-wise," Stephens said. "It's a huge deal for everybody to have him here, since we all know his personality and how he likes to call games."


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