'Where's Nick?'

Sunshine wasn't the only thing missing when Tennessee's football players showed up inside the Neyland-Thompson sports complex on a rainy Thursday afternoon.

"I didn't know anything was going on," sophomore receiver Marsalis Teague said. "I came out here and thought, 'Where's Nick?'"

That depends. Senior linebacker Nick Reveiz was working with the No. 1 defense. Sophomore quarterback Nick Lamaison was getting third-team repetitions. Senior quarterback Nick Stephens was nowhere to be found. After a poor scrimmage last Thursday and a reduction in practice repetitions on Wednesday, Stephens skipped today's practice and announced plans to transfer.

Like many of his teammates, Teague was caught by surprise. Stephens was the only Vol QB to start a college game, having answered the bell six times in 2008. Lamaison spent 2008 at junior college and redshirted at UT in 2009. Junior Matt Simms threw 10 passes as a little-used backup at Louisville in 2008, then spent last season at junior college. Freshman Tyler Bray has never even suited up for a college game.

Ultimately, however, Stephens couldn't exploit his edge in experience. He completed just 3 of 9 passes for 6 yards in last Thursday's scrimmage, being outplayed by both Simms (6 of 20, 83 yards) and Bray (9 of 13, 69 yards). When head coach Derek Dooley announced Tuesday that Simms and Bray would have their practice repetitions increase - with Stephens' reps suffering a corresponding decrease - the senior QB decided to seek greener pastures.

Teague says he and his teammates, though shocked, must regroup quickly.

"We just have to focus on who's here," he said, "keep doing what we're doing and make sure we're sticking behind one another."

For what it's worth, Simms and Bray appear to be improving steadily this spring.

"The quarterbacks are coming along real well right now," senior wideout Denarius Moore said. "They're learning the playbook, along with the rest of us."

Teague noted that Simms and Bray "are going through their progressions well. They're both very accurate throwing us the ball. Right now it's just looking good for us."

Because he's older and has at least faced juco competition, Simms ranks as the odds-on favorite for the Vol quarterback job.

"I really like his poise back there in the pocket, and his ability to move around," Teague said. "He's been doing a fabulous job of putting the ball right there where we need it to be and where it's supposed to be."

Bray is coming up fast on the outside, however, and could put some heat on Simms with a good fall camp.

"Tyler's really maturing," Teague said. "You could tell the first couple of days when he got pressured that he was kind of shaky back there. Now he looks like he's more comfortable stepping up in the pocket and delivering the ball."

As a fifth-year senior, Stephens was expected to fill a leadership role for the 2010 Vols. Now that role must be filled by someone else.

"Things happen in the game of football," Teague said with a shrug. "This is one of those things we kind of have to put aside and move forward."

Stephens' departure ensures that Tennessee will have a first-time starter at quarterback in 2010. Whoever he is, he'll need plenty of help from his receivers.

"I wouldn't say there's more load on us receivers now," Teague said, "but I think the offense as a whole is going to have more on it. We're willing to take that challenge, though, move forward and have a good season."

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