Nick Stephens on his first snaps of spring practice
UT head football coach, Lane Kiffin, talks with the media following practice at Haslam Field Tuesday, March 31, 2009. Watch »
Physically, Nick Stephens is ahead of schedule. Mentally, he’s ahead of the curve, too.
On Tuesday, the junior quarterback took his first snaps from center of spring practice. Jonathan Crompton, though, took the most snaps.
As Stephens continues to recover from a broken right wrist, Crompton has been making strides in the battle to become Tennessee’s starting quarterback.
Based on Crompton’s performance through UT’s first six practices, first-year coach Lane Kiffin decided to surprise the senior with extended first-team reps.
“I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I didn’t even tell him it was going to happen,” Kiffin said. “I talked to (sophomore quarterback) B.J. (Coleman), but I didn’t even tell Jonathan. I wanted to see how he’d react. Would that be added pressure? And all of a sudden, would he regress? But he came out and looked even better, so that was a great reaction to it.”
Meanwhile Stephens, who started six games last season, reacted well to his most extended work of spring practice, Kiffin said.
“It was really good to see him out there,” Kiffin said. “He looked comfortable, especially in his decision making and his drops for what we did with him today. We’ll keep giving him more and more.”
Stephens, who had a cast on his throwing hand for UT’s first three practices, has been trying to take more responsibility.
He’s spent extra time watching film, both of Kiffin’s offense at Southern California and UT’s practices in order to keep up mentally. Stephens watched Coleman and Crompton make the throws, but he’d quiz himself on where the ball should go and why.
“I feel like every play that Coach Kiffin called out there, I went up to the line and knew what I was looking for,” Stephens said. “I knew I’d make the right read. In 7-on-7, I was slow with one ball a couple times but other than that I made all the right reads. I’m comfortable with where I am mentally.”
But Stephens wasn’t the only one putting in extra time. Crompton has been busy watching Southern California tape, too.
“I have a lot of free time on my own to come watch film on weekends and during the week, getting in my playbook,” he said. “I’m trying to get as comfortable as I can with the offense. Obviously (Kiffin’s offense) has paid off in the past, and we’re trying to make it pay off here.”
Prior to Tuesday, Stephens had been limited to mainly short throws. He had the cast removed last week, ahead of schedule.
But with Stephens sidelined, Crompton and Coleman have both had extra snaps. Those extra chances to not only study the offense but actually run it have paid off.
“I think it helped (Crompton) a lot,” receiver Gerald Jones said. “I think if Nick wasn’t hurt, it would probably have cut the snap reps down. It’s helped him and actually it’s benefited him. He got a lot better, and he took advantage of it.”
Stephens just hopes to take advantage of the remaining seven practices leading up to the Orange and White Game on April 18.
Participating in his first 7-on-7 drills of the spring, Stephens said his reads were good, but several of his passes sailed high or weren’t easy to catch for receivers.
“My grip, the strength isn’t there yet,” said Stephens, who said he feels about 85 percent healthy. “The pain is not that bad. It’s just the grip strength. That’s one of the things I’m working on in the training room. When normally I can just grab it and just do whatever I want with it, right now I’m having to keep it up high and make sure it’s not sailing on me.”
Keeping up, though, hasn’t been a problem.
Kiffin said he’s noticed Stephens asking questions during practice and watching extra film.
“For what he’s been able to do, he’s sat in extra meetings, really studied, asked questions,” Kiffin said. “Even on the field when he wasn’t able to do it, he’d come over and ask questions. I thought he looked really comfortable today. He didn’t look like a guy that it was his first shot out there.”
And although Crompton has pleased UT’s coaches so far, Stephens should still get the chance to impress. Stephens expects to get his first live work during Saturday’s first full scrimmage of spring practice.
And there’s no timetable for naming a starter, either.
“We’re just going to keep coaching them,” quarterbacks coach David Reaves said. “That’s on Coach Kiffin. Whenever he makes that decision, I’m going to go with it.”
Dave Hooker contributed to this report.
Drew Edwards covers University of Tennessee football. He may be reached at 865-342-6274.