This summer, Tennessee's quarterbacks have been busy with formal 7-on-7 workouts three days a week. But it's been a pretty common sight in the Neyland-Thompson Sports Center to see junior Nick Stephens or senior Jonathan Crompton - or both - putting in plenty of extra work.
Both are trying to get comfortable in yet another new offensive scheme, and every minute is precious.
"You can't throw enough balls with receivers," Stephens says. "It comes down to reps. The more you throw, the better you're going to get."
For Stephens, those throws were severely limited this spring because of a broken wrist on his throwing hand. A month after UT's spring game marked the end of spring practice, Stephens said his wrist finally felt healthy.
But all that missed time made summer an even more critical time for Stephens, who will split practice snaps with Crompton until new UT coach Lane Kiffin names a starter in fall camp.
Not only healthy, Stephens says he's found a comfort zone within Kiffin's pro-style offense.
"Something clicked with me this summer," Stephens said. "One of the things with this offense is timing. It's a huge thing to take a five-step drop and know where they're going to be. The more you do it, the better it comes to you. I think it's coming to me right now, and I'm ready to go into August."
Crompton, who left spring practice as the starter due in part to Stephens' absence, enters his final season with the Vols seeking some level of confidence.
Last season wasn't kind to either player.
Stephens, who started six games, completed 63 of 130 passes for 840 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions. Crompton, who began and ended the season as the starter, didn't fare much better. The one-time Parade All-American completed 86 of 167 throws for 889 yards, four touchdowns and five picks.
While healthy heading into fall camp, Crompton is still trying to heal. Fans were hard on the fifth-year senior and things turned ugly at times off the field.
"I can see in Jonathan what has happened before and around here - and I don't know if this is a good comparison - it's like a bad relationship. He's hurt," Kiffin said. "You can tell when things go bad a little bit with him that he kind of freezes up a little bit because he's been beat up for so long. That's very obvious for me to see.
Coach: David Reaves.
Lettermen Lost (1): B.J. Coleman (transfer).
Projected Starter: Jonathan Crompton (Sr., 6-4, 228) or Nick Stephens (Jr., 6-4, 227).
Watch For: Green jerseys. The departure of B.J. Coleman after spring practice makes depth a real issue, and the coaching staff may opt to protect the quarterbacks from live contact this fall, unlike spring practice.
Key Stat: The Vols weren’t very productive in the passing game last season, but the numbers are shocking. Only twice last season (Georgia and UAB) did the Vols have a 200-yard passer.
"I've worked very hard about getting him out of that by conversations and to understand and not worry about what happened before. Like everybody else, we're focused on the future. I think he's getting a lot better at that."
The Vols are hoping the numbers get better this fall. UT's 1,750 passing yards in 2008 marked their lowest output since 1981. Individually, Crompton (UAB) and Stephens (Georgia) topped 200 yards passing in a game just once.
Kiffin, who is very active with UT's quarterbacks along with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and quarterbacks coach David Reaves, wants his players to forget last year's struggles and focus on what's ahead.
"I don't talk about last year to them at all," he said. "I talk about what we're doing and our future here. They understand I'm going to protect them. Quarterback's different than everybody else. I'm going to protect them in the way that I call games. I'm going to protect them in the way that I talk to the media about them as well. I got their back, and they need to understand that."
The back-ups, however, could be a different story.
Behind Stephens and Crompton, the Vols' depth could be a concern. Crompton battled an ankle injury last season, while Stephens is coming off a broken wrist.
The departure of B.J. Coleman after spring practice left the Vols with just two scholarship players until junior college transfer Nick Lamaison signed in July. Walk-on Mike Rozier, a former minor league baseball player, also is a fresh face this fall, however the quarterback battle is essentially a two-man race.
And Kiffin hopes to have that number dropped to one - and only one - soon rather than later.
"Definitely want to have one," Kiffin said. "I don't believe in rotating quarterbacks."
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.